U.S. House Minority Leader Charlie Halleck (left) of Indiana watches President Lyndon B. Johnson sign the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964.
U.S. House Minority Leader Charlie Halleck (left) of Indiana watches President Lyndon B. Johnson sign the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964.

INDIANAPOLIS – Late last October during a pandemic, I joined a diverse group of about 5,000 north Indianapolis voters at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church on a Saturday morning. It took five and a half hours for us to vote. While there was some grumbling, the prevailing sentiment was how the powers that be need to make it easier to vote.

In this lull between election cycles, the Republican and Democrat battlefront now lies with the divisive issues of immigration and voting rights.

National Republicans effectively became the “Party of Trump” in 2020. The GOP didn’t pass a party platform before watching President Trump become the first since Herbert Hoover to preside over the loss of both chambers of Congress and the White House within a single term. The Trump presidential era has been characterized as xenophobic in its use of racial “dog whistles” as the former president concentrated on adding white, male voters instead of expanding its reach to minorities, as advocated by then RNC Chairman Reince Priebus’s 2013 “autopsy” report of the 2012 election. It recommended the GOP reach out to a diverse electorate, something the 2020 Trump campaign was able to do, picking up a modest uptick Latino male support in anti-Castro South Florida and in Texas, though that demographic is hardly a monolithic entity.

The Republican National Committee is passing on an election post-mortem after its nominee lost the presidential popular vote for seventh time in the past nine elections. Only President George W. Bush (2004) and Vice President George H.W. Bush (1988) have won the popular vote during this time frame.

Trump pollster Tony Fabrizio did write a 27-page “autopsy” observing that the president saw the “greatest erosion with white voters, particularly white men,” and that he “lost ground with almost every age group” between his 2016 Electoral College victory and his 2020 loss. In the five states that flipped to Biden, Trump’s biggest drop-off was among voters aged 18 to 29 and 65 and older.

Politico reported: “Trump saw double-digit erosion with white college-educated voters across the board.”

While Indiana Republicans brand themselves as the “Party of Purpose” and the “Party That Works,” and Chairman Kyle Hupfer is attempting to expand the party base with a new diversity program, the national GOP appears to be using vote suppression as its calling card heading into the 2022 cycle.

Now during the first state legislative season since the election, multiple sources report that GOP legislatures as of Feb. 19 have carried over, prefiled, or introduced 253 bills with provisions that restrict voting access in 43 states. “With unprecedented numbers of voters casting their ballots by mail in 2020, legislators across the country have shown particular interest in absentee voting reform, with more than a quarter of voting and election bills addressing absentee voting procedures,” the Brennan Center reported. “Only six of the 44 states that have introduced election bills have not proposed policies to alter absentee voting procedures in some way.”

The Brennan Center lists two bills, SB353 on voter registration and SB398 on absentee voting, as the Indiana version of vote suppression.

The biggest impact of SB353 would prohibit the governor from changing, during a declared disaster emergency, the time, place, or manner of holding an election. This was in reaction to a decision last April when Gov. Eric Holcomb, then-Secretary of State Connie Lawson, Republican Chairman Kyle Hupfer and then-Democratic Chairman John Zody signed off on delaying the May primary to June. It passed the Senate on a 34-15 vote with one abstaining.

As for SB398, it passed the Senate on a 46-0 vote. It specifies a list of family members to assist an absentee voter, establishes audit trail standards, sets standards for a county election board to determine whether a signature is valid, establishes procedures and forms for the curing of mismatched signatures involving an absentee ballot and unsigned absentee ballots, and extends the time in which an absentee ballot must be received on Election Day from noon until 6 p.m.

The Republican caucus rejected amendments from State Sen. J.D. Ford attempting to allow for absentee ballot drop boxes and would have expanded no-excuse absentee balloting that was used in the 2020 June primary, but not the general election.

When SB398 was heard in the House, Republicans refused to debate a redistricting reform amendment which would have established an independent, non-partisan reapportionment commission and forbidden the use of “political data” to redraw districts. House Republicans determined the amendment wasn’t “germane” to avoid debate.

Nationally, Congressional Democrats have responded with HR1, which was adopted 220 to 210 mostly along party lines earlier this month, that would constitute the most significant enhancement of federal voting protections since the 1960s if it became law. According to the New York Times, it aims to impose new national requirements weakening state voter ID laws, mandate automatic voter registration, expand early and mail-in voting, make it harder to purge voter rolls and restore voting rights to former felons – changes that studies suggest would increase voter participation, especially by racial minorities.

U.S. Rep. Jackie Walorski has opposed HR1, saying, “We need bipartisan reforms to assure the American people their votes are counted fully, fairly, and accurately. But HR1 won’t restore confidence in our elections; it will only sow further division and doubt by imposing a one-size-fits-all, Washington-mandated election system on all 50 states.”

“The idea that you’d federalize the election process with no Republican support in an environment in which tens of millions of people already don’t trust the process is insane,” Mark Braden, the former chief counsel to the Republican National Committee, told The Hill. “Trump said a lot of things that were untrue and should be held to account for that, but now Democrats are showing up at the fire with gasoline instead of water.”

Donald Trump and congressional Republicans helped set the stage for the hundreds of bills in state legislatures after his “Stop the Steal” effort following his 2020 loss in an effort to “overturn” the results that critics say are designed to suppress Democratic vote, particularly in minority communities.

“If you were to poll out activists right now, election integrity is going to be near the top of the list,” Noah Wall, executive vice president of FreedomWorks, told the AP. “Twelve months ago, that wasn’t the case.” Added Jessica Anderson of Heritage Action, “It kind of feels like an all-hands-on-deck moment for the conservative movement. We’ve had a bit of a battle cry from the grassroots, urging us to pick this fight.”

President Biden called the new Georgia laws “an atrocity,” adding last week, “Yet instead of celebrating the rights of all Georgians to vote or winning campaigns on the merits of their ideas, Republicans in the state instead rushed through an un-American law to deny people the right to vote. This law, like so many others being pursued by Republicans in statehouses across the country is a blatant attack on the Constitution and good conscience. This is Jim Crow in the 21st Century. It must end. We have a moral and Constitutional obligation to act.”

Rich Lowry writes in his New York Post column that that voter ID laws were recommended by a 2005 bipartisan commission led by Jimmy Carter and James Baker, “neither of who will ever be mistaken for Bull Connor.” States, Lowry observes, would have no choice but to accept same-day registrations. People applying for various government programs or for college would be registered automatically. States couldn’t turn away the registrations of 16-year-olds, even though they can’t legally vote. States couldn’t require voter ID. They couldn’t remove inactive voters from the rolls. They couldn’t work with other states to try to find duplicate registrations six months ahead of an election.” 

Walorski joined about 140 of her House colleagues in late December in voting not to accept the Electoral College certified results on Jan. 6, which ended in the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. It prompted Nebraska Republican Sen. Ben Sasse to observe, “The president and his allies are playing with fire. They have been asking – first the courts, then state legislatures, now the Congress – to overturn the results of a presidential election. They have unsuccessfully called on judges and are now calling on federal officeholders to invalidate millions and millions of votes. If you make big claims, you had better have the evidence. But the president doesn’t and neither do the institutional arsonist members of Congress who will object to the Electoral College vote.”

This is where a history lesson becomes relevant.

In 1964 and 1965, Congress did step in to correct more than a century of Jim Crow laws in former states of the Confederacy designed to suppress African-American voting. The Smithsonian reported: ”The Civil Rights Act of 1964, a landmark piece of legislation, was a long time in the making, and the passage of the bill required the political machinations of an assortment of Republicans, Democrats, Northerners and Southerners, congressmen, senators, presidents and activists. Congress had considered, and failed to pass, a civil rights bill every year from 1945 to 1957. In 1957, Congress finally managed to pass a limited Civil Rights Act, which it added to in 1960, but these bills offered Black Americans only modest gains. It wasn’t until 1963, in a televised speech, that President Kennedy called for a robust Civil Rights Act.

“It ought to be possible … for every American to enjoy the privileges of being American without regard to race or color,” Kennedy said in the spring of 1963. “In short, every American ought to have the right to be treated as he would wish to be treated, as one would wish his children to be treated.”

In a little more than a week, what would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was introduced in the House. Two months later, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I have a dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial. Three months after that, President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. And in an address before a joint session of Congress on Nov. 27, 1963 (five days after Kennedy’s death), President Lyndon Johnson was resolute, declaring, “We have talked long enough in this country about equal rights. We have talked for 100 years or more. It is time now to write the next chapter, and to write it in the books of law.”

President Johnson knew he would need Republican help. He found a key player in House Minority Leader Charlie Halleck of Indiana, who often described himself as “100% Republican” or a “Republican, period.” According to his 1986 Washington Post obituary, Halleck was “one of the leading architects of the conservative coalition of Republicans and southern Democrats that blocked or curtailed much of the legislation in the domestic programs of Presidents Roosevelt, Truman and Kennedy.”

According to his New York Times obit, “In 1963, to the astonishment of Congressional Republicans and the outrage of Southern Democrats, it was Mr. Halleck who gave crucial help in guiding through the House a compromise civil rights bill supported by the Democratic Administration.”

When President Johnson first asked Halleck to help push the Civil Rights Act through the House, Halleck was hesitant, but in the end, he acquiesced, telling Johnson he would “give you the right to sign that thing on July 1,” according to The Smithsonian, though he objected to the “politicalization” of the Fourth of July. In a phone conversation two days after the bill made it through the Senate, President Johnson urged Halleck to push the bill through. Johnson wanted the bill to be signed into law by July 4, leaving enough time for it to be enacted before the Republican National Convention, which was to begin July 13. On July 2, 1964, the House adopted the Senate’s version of the bill by a vote of 289-126.

Halleck kept his Hoosier GOP delegation in order, with U.S. Reps. Ross Adair, Richard Roudebush, William Bray (grandfather of Senate President Pro Tem Rod Bray), Earl Wilson, Ralph Harvey and Bruce Donald joining the state’s four Democrats in the passage of HR7152. After it was amended by the Senate, only Rep. Wilson voted against the measure.

In the comparison Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Indiana GOP delegation was down to just five after the LBJ landslide victory over Republican Barry Goldwater (who opposed the Civil Rights Act), while Halleck lost a minority leader race to Rep. Gerald Ford. But Halleck joined Adair, Roudebush and Bray in voting yea, while Rep. Harvey did not vote. They joined freshman Democrats Lee Hamilton, Andrew Jacobs and Denton Winfield in voting for the historic civil rights legislation.

In the long run, these two historic acts set in motion more minority voting, but the subsequent political realignment in the Deep South resulted in Richard Nixon’s 1968 “Southern strategy campaign” and is still in place today. In Goldwater’s loss to LBJ, he carried five deep South states. Indeed, when President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law on July 2, 1964, he is said to have told an aide, “We (Democrats) have lost the South for a generation.”

The Trump-era GOP appears to be doubling down on suppression, as opposed to relying on ideas and purpose to attract voters. “Restricting voting is only a short-term rush. It’s not a strategy for future strength,” said Benjamin Ginsberg, one of the Republican Party’s most prominent election lawyers (New York Times). “Look at what it really means. A party that’s increasingly old and white whose base is a diminishing share of the population is conjuring up charges of fraud to erect barriers to voting for people it fears won’t support its candidates.”

In the 1960 Republican National Committee platform was this plank: “This nation was created to give expression, validity and purpose to our spiritual heritage – the supreme worth of the individual. In such a nation – a nation dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal – racial discrimination has no place. It can hardly be reconciled with a Constitution that guarantees equal protection under law to all persons. In a deeper sense, too, it is immoral and unjust. As to those matters within reach of political action and leadership, we pledge ourselves unreservedly to its eradication.”

Times have changed for the Party of Lincoln in an era where Washington has been reduced from policymaking to performance art.