Last week I took a stab at a James Earl Carter obituary. Rick Perlstein, who will presumably finish his trilogy about post-sixties Republicanism with the triumph of Ronald Reagan in 1980, concentrates on Carter’s lifelong interest in voting rights, a subject that his southern colleagues knew much about after Congress’ 1965 act pushed the most rebarbative among them into Strom Thurmond’s GOP. The result?
He asked Congress to allot up to $25 million in aid to states to help them comply, and for the current system of federal matching funds for presidential candidates to be expanded to congressional elections. He suggested reforming a loophole in the matching-fund law that disadvantaged candidates competing with rich opponents who funded their campaigns themselves, and revising the Hatch Act to allow federal employees “not in sensitive positions,” and when not on the job, the same rights of political participation as everyone else.
Finally, and most radically, he recommended that Congress adopt a constitutional amendment to do away with the Electoral College—under which, three times in our history (four times if you count George W. Bush 23 years later), a candidate who received fewer votes than his opponent went on to become president—in favor of popular election of presidents. It was one of the broadest political reform packages ever proposed.
It was immediately embraced. Legislators from both parties stood together at a news briefing to endorse all or part of it. Two Republican senators and two Republican representatives stepped forward to cosponsor the universal registration bill; William Brock, chairman of the Republican National Committee, called it “a Republican concept.” Senate Minority Leader Howard Baker announced his support, and suggested going even further: making election day a national holiday and keeping polls open 24 hours. House Minority Leader John Rhodes, a conservative disciple of Barry Goldwater, predicted it would pass “in substantially the same form with a lot of Republican support, including my own.”
A more perfect democracy. Who could find this controversial?
You guessed it: movement conservatives, who took their lessons about Democrats and “electoral reform” from Republican allegations that had Kennedy beating Nixon via votes received from the cemeteries of Chicago.
Ronald Reagan had been on this case for years. “Look at the potential for cheating,” he thundered in 1975, when Democrats proposed allowing citizens to register by postcard. “He can be John Doe in Berkeley, and J.F. Doe in the next county, all by saying he intends to live in both places … Yes, it takes a little work to be a voter; it takes some planning to get to the polls or send an absentee ballot … That’s a small price to pay for freedom.”
As James Murphy said, that’s where it starts. Chief Justice John Roberts cut his teeth in the Reagan White House as an assistant to the attorney general, specializing in sardonic memos in which he made clear that claimants must show “clear proof” of discrimination instead of “effects.” What concerned Roberts was “the most intrusive interference imaginable by federal courts into state and local processes.” Twenty-one years later, John Roberts wrote the majority opinion in Shelby County v. Holder, and Jimmy Carter is the worst president since Herbert Hoover.