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Reprinted with permission from Creators.

 

In 1960, when John F. Kennedy was running for the White House against Richard Nixon, winning Democratic presidential tickets still depended on the backing of segregationist party colleagues in the Southern states.

In October of that year, when Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested and sent to jail on a trumped-up traffic charge in Georgia, his wife, Coretta, then five months pregnant, was legitimately worried about her husband’s safety and survival. Kennedy’s Southern backers told him not to intervene. But after the persistent advocacy of Harris Wofford and Wofford’s close friend Sargent Shriver (JFK’s brother-in-law), Kennedy — ignoring the arguments of his own campaign leadership, including his brother Robert — called Mrs. King to offer his comfort and sympathy to her and to say he would do whatever he could to see that justice would be done.

Blacks in the South who could vote at that time were, out of gratitude to the legacy of Abraham Lincoln and because local Democrats did not welcome them to the voter rolls, overwhelmingly Republican. “Daddy King,” one of the South’s most influential ministers and Martin Jr.’s father, was in Coretta Scott King’s home when she answered Kennedy’s call. He was skeptical of Kennedy’s Catholicism and sympathetic to Nixon. After the call, he said the following: “If Kennedy has the courage to wipe the tears from Coretta’s eyes, (I) will vote for him whatever his religion.” Nixon remained silent. After Democrats delivered Daddy King’s endorsement to the national black communities, JFK’s narrow victory, with a smashing 79 percent of the U.S. black vote, was secure. And the national Democratic Party would abandon the segregationist South to champion federal civil rights laws.

In Wofford’s single winning campaign, his 1991 upset win over Dick Thornburgh for a U.S. Senate seat in Pennsylvania, he ran on an issue that many national Democrats had told him would be a loser, national health care. Wofford, after a conversation with a Philadelphia doctor, insisted on making a TV ad in which he said straightforwardly: “If criminals have the right to a lawyer, I think working Americans should have the right to a doctor. … I’m Harris Wofford, and I believe there is nothing more fundamental than the right to see a doctor when you’re sick.” Wofford won, and the national debate on health care was profoundly changed, such that 20 years later, the Affordable Care Act could become the law of the land.

Harris Wofford, a committed American citizen who died this past week at 92, proved conclusively that one individual and two political campaigns can change our nation.

To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.

 

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Eric Holder

The failure of major federal voting rights legislation in the Senate has left civil rights advocates saying they are determined to keep fighting—including by suing in battleground states. But the little bipartisan consensus that exists on election reform would, at best, lead to much narrower legislation that is unlikely to address state-level GOP efforts now targeting Democratic blocs.

“This is the loss of a battle, but it is not necessarily the loss of a war, and this war will go on,” Eric Holder, the former U.S. attorney general and Democrat, told MSNBC, saying that he and the Democratic Party will be suing in states where state constitutions protect voting rights. “This fight for voting rights and voter protection and for our democracy will continue.”

“The stakes are too important to give up now,” said Damon Hewitt, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which for years has operated an Election Day hotline to help people vote. “Our country cannot claim to be free while allowing states to legislate away that freedom at will.”

In recent weeks, as it became clear that the Senate was not going to change its rules to allow the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to pass with a simple majority, there have been efforts by some lawmakers, election policy experts, and civil rights advocates to identify what election reforms could pass the Senate.

“There are several areas… where I think there could be bipartisan consensus,” said David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, in a briefing on January 20. “These areas are all around those guardrails of democracy. They are all about ensuring that however the voters speak that their voice is heard… and cannot be subverted by anyone in the post-election process.”

Becker cited updating the 1887 Electoral Count Act, which addressed the process where state-based slates of presidential electors are accepted by Congress. (In recent weeks, new evidence has surfaced showing that Donald Trump’s supporters tried to present Congress with forged certificates as part of an effort to disrupt ratifying the results on January 6, 2021.) Updating that law could also include clarifying which state officials have final authority in elections and setting out clear timetables for challenging election results in federal court after Election Day.

Five centrist Washington-based think tanks issued a report on January 20, Prioritizing Achievable Federal Election Reform, which suggested federal legislation could codify practices now used by nearly three-quarters of the states. Those include requiring voters to present ID, offering at least a week of early voting, allowing all voters to request a mailed-out ballot, and allowing states to start processing returned absentee ballots a week before Election Day.

But the report, which heavily drew on a task force of 29 state and local election officials from 20 states convened by Washington’s Bipartisan Policy Center, was notable in what it did not include, such as restoring the major enforcement section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was removed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013. It did not mention the Electoral Count Act nor growing threats to election officials from Trump supporters.

“This won’t satisfy all supporters of the Freedom to Vote Act, but this is a plausible & serious package of reforms to make elections more accessible and secure that could attract bipartisan support,” tweeted Charles Stewart III, a political scientist and director of the MIT Election Data and Science Lab. “A good starting point.”

The reason the centrist recommendations won’t satisfy civil rights advocates is that many of the most troubling developments since the 2020 election would likely remain.

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