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F. Ross Peterson: Mitt Romney and Mike Lee should invoke their ancestors and support voting rights protection

George Romney and Rex. E. Lee set examples that their senator sons should emulate.

Tribune file photo Richard Nixon, left, and George Romney, talk during a meeting at the National Jaycees convention in Detroit in 1966. They were then considered leading contenders for the 1968 Republican presidential nomination, which Nixon won.

On Monday, Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday will be remembered as a national holiday. This year, our nation is again faced with the issue of voting rights.

When King and thousands marched from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in March of 1965, they had the support of President Lyndon B. Johnson and the United States Congress on behalf of a national Voting Rights bill. Fifty-seven years later, the U.S. Senate will decide if the right to vote is a protected civil right for all Americans.

Although much attention has been given to the filibuster and Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, the future of voting rights should be in the hands of the one hundred senators who should individually go on record as for or against the two bills passed by the House.

The problem is that in the partisan divided political world of 2022, Sen. Mitch McConnell believes he controls all 50 Republicans. McConnell and many of his colleagues refuse to acknowledge that numerous laws passed in many states restrict accessibility to vote. Consequently, they do not want the pending national legislation to be debated or come to a vote.

Utah’s two senators have the opportunity and obligation to inform their constituents how they feel about voting rights. Will they raise their voices to show the nation that the Senate deserves respect for what they stand for, and not condemnation for refusing to act on one of the great moral issues of their day? I encourage Sen. Mike Lee and Sen. Mitt Romney to adhere to the advice John Quincy Adams gave the Supreme Court when they were trying the Amistad case in 1841. “Invoke your ancestors.”

George Romney and Rex E. Lee served their country, their state and their faith in many ways. Their wives, Lenore and Janet, stood with them through that service.

George Romney was Michigan’s governor during some of the most tumultuous racial unrest in history and later as head of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development during the Nixon administration. When George Romney marched for racial equality in 1964 and enforced fair housing laws in 1971 he did so without support of his fellow religious believers or President Richard Nixon. Romney practiced the gospel of inclusion based on what was right for all citizens. Mitt Romney evoked that memory when he joined a protest march in 2021.

Rex Lee spent years in the Civil Division of the Department of Justice and then four years as solicitor general of the United States. In the 59 times he presented cases before the United States Supreme Court, he was “the epitome of integrity on whom we could rely for straight talk,” according to Justice Byron White. His mantra demanded facts that led to truth.

Romney and Lee reached back to their ancestors who had been driven into exile in Mexico and Eastern Arizona and were disenfranchised along with their families. As president of Brigham Young University, Rex Lee transformed the university and prepared it for the racial inclusion that had become part of the future of his church. When George Romney toured the burned-out inner city of Detroit after the riots of 1967, he voiced the solution as involvement as equals for those whose plight seemed desperate.

I cannot imagine these men, these fathers, accepting leadership that puts power and political party above the right to vote. They might advise their senator sons to give all citizens something positive to vote for and give them hope that the Senate cares.

If you read the writings and opinions of Rex Lee, there is no way to support a claim of voter fraud when there was no evidence presented to courts that supported that claim. Most importantly, both Gov. Romney and President Lee, and hopefully their sons, knew that the genius of the Constitution is it teaches how to lose with dignity and respect the transfer of power. The unfounded claims of fraud are what led to state legislatures restricting access to ballots.

For over 200 years, the United States has strived to fulfill the idealistic preamble to the Constitution: “We the People, In Order to Form a More Perfect Union…” The litmus test has often been expansion of the franchise, the right to vote. Voting eligibility evolved from male property owners to all adult white males, to former slaves, to immigrants, to women and to those at least 18 years old.

Congress has consistently expanded the path to citizenship and political access. Only once did the nation retreat from this lofty course. After the Compromise of 1877, the Fifteenth Amendment was destroyed through state laws (poll taxes, literacy tests, grandfather clauses and white primaries) and Supreme Court acquiescence.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 rectified that. As a nation, and as a Senate, we cannot fear the fact that that most over 18 can register and vote without artificial restrictions. Sens. Lee and Romney, we cannot allow a reversal of nearly six decades of political progress. Healing the country depends on those who can rely on the past as they prepare for the future.

F. Ross Peterson

F. Ross Peterson, Ph.D., is a retired professor of history at Utah State University and the former president of Deep Springs College in California. He has taught the history of the Civil Rights Movement for 50 years.

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