Paul Loeb: Could Mitt Romney be the Bob Dole who saves voting rights?

Did you know Kansas Republican Sen. Bob Dole helped save the Voting Rights Act?

It was the 1982 renewal, two years before Dole became Senate majority leader, and 14 years before becoming the Republican presidential nominee. Dole had voted for the original 1965 act, which Republican Minority Leader Everett Dirksen helped shepherd through.

But Dirksen was long gone by 1982, and key Reagan administration officials, including future Supreme Court Justices John Roberts and Clarence Thomas, opposed the bill’s renewal. Just two years earlier, Reagan had criticized the 1965 act as “humiliating to the south.”

Dole, a strong conservative who’d defended Nixon during the Watergate scandal, became involved through his African American businessman friend Leroy Tombs, a longtime Republican. As Tombs described, Dole was embarrassed that a voting rights bill was even needed, and expanded the term of key sections to 25 years.

Dole’s bill included a key practical compromise, clarifying that members of a protected class didn’t have to be elected in numbers equal to their proportion in the population, so excluding quotas. Dole also clarified that those discriminated against didn’t have to prove that discrimination was intentional, just that access to the vote was clearly being denied or abridged.

Once he’d drafted the compromise, Dole then systematically engaged key Republicans, particularly fellow Judiciary Committee members, to support his revised bill. He answered opponents’ arguments, persisted despite initial setbacks and insisted that supporting African Americans’ right to vote was essential to “save the Republican party,” to “erase the lingering image of our party as the cadre of the elite, the wealthy, the insensitive.”

The Senate renewed the act by a vote of 65-8, and Reagan ended up signing it.

Utah’s Sen. Mitt Romney has already embodied courage in holding Donald Trump accountable for attacks on democracy. What if he, Lisa Murkowski, Susan Collins, or any other moderate Republican acknowledged how gravely the new state laws threaten our democratic process and embraced, as many Republicans did in 1965 and 1982, the necessary remedy of federal action?

It’s nice for Romney to sponsor a bill honoring the character, purpose and compassion of the late Rep. John Lewis. But without passing a law, that resolution will just be fine words and the destructive state laws will prevail.

Like Dole’s 1982 legislation, a voting rights bill doesn’t have to address every contested election law issue. Sen. Joe Manchin’s recent compromise would go a long way toward addressing the worst abuses, even if it excluded elements of HR1/SR1 that would strengthen democracy further.

But for the compromise to pass, Republicans would have to provide 10 votes, which won’t happen. Or someone like Romney could make it a reality by bypassing the filibuster for voting rights bills. If he wants fair and accessible elections, he needs to do more than utter benign words.

Otherwise, we will see no check on the wave of state laws suppressing voting, enshrining the most radical partisan gerrymandering and wresting the power to count votes away from officials who’ve upheld the law honorably. That’s not even counting anti-Good Samaritan bills that make it illegal to even give water to the thirsty, if they happen to be in a voting line.

Imagine if Romney backed bypassing the filibuster in this critical situation. That might be enough to actually pass a bill. Or at least pressure wavering Democrats like Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema. If one or two other Republicans joined him, it would put still further pressure. If three, it would pretty much guarantee passage.

Dole secured those key votes in a time when many Republicans were actually willing to support enfranchising all Americans, instead of fighting to prevent their voting. Alas, most now seem to regard democracy as expendable if it might hamper their gaining power. Dole, who’s fighting stage 4 cancer, supported Trump’s election and reelection, though now says he’s “sort of Trumped out.” And he’s initially opposed the only practical measure, bypassing the filibuster, that could actually reinstate some of democracy’s guardrails.

But Romney or any other Republican could still play the role that Dole once did, standing up to defend the franchise, and if they did, it would validate principles that Romney’s long believed in. I believe he knows that the recent state voting bills have nothing to do with democracy except to undermine it. The question is whether he can see past short-term partisan advantage, to truly stand up for a government elected by all eligible Americans.

The Bob Dole of 1982 shows that this can be possible.

Paul Loeb

Paul Loeb is the author of “Soul of a Citizen” and “The Impossible Will Take a Little While.”