Thursday, February 9, 2012

Nixon's Civil Rights 9

In my reading today of Dean Kotlowski's Nixon's Civil Rights, the Nixon Administration attempts to arrive at an acceptable voting rights bill with Congress.

There were a variety of issues that came up as different sides hashed this out. There was the issue of pre-clearance: Should southern states have to clear their voting laws with the Justice Department? Nixon's Attorney General, John Mitchell, hesitated here because he believed in states' rights (on some level). But pre-clearance was important for Northern liberals because the South could undermine African-American votes through gerrymandering. There was the issue of what the extent of the law should be. Many in the southern states resented how the Voting Rights Act targeted the South specifically, and they believed that it should apply to the entire nation. Nixon agreed with them on this, and he desired a national ban on literacy tests. Then there was the issue of litigation, which was how the Nixon Administration often sought to redress the problem of racial discrimination. It did so diligently and frequently, but that approach had drawbacks, for litigation could be "tedious and time-consuming" (to use the words of the Commission on Civil Rights), plus the Nixon Administration's proposal would place "the burden of proof in voting rights cases on the federal government, not the states" (page 83).

But after hashing and rehashing, a compromise was reached in 1970, resulting in a national ban on literacy tests and pre-clearance. What was interesting was that some prominent Republicans actually opposed the national ban on literacy tests because the illiterate rarely vote Republican. That reminded me of Republican criticisms of the motor-voter law in the 1990's, which allowed people to register to vote when they went to their local license branch. Some Republicans feared that this would result in more Democratic voters. But I like what a conservative lobbyist once told me: such an attitude indicates doubt about the appeal and the efficacy of one's own ideas, plus the motor-voter law has resulted in more Republican voters.

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