The Voting Rights Act That Wasn’t: The Ford-McCulloch Bill

Presidents will talk about having a mandate if they win, regardless of how much they win by. Trump claimed a mandate after 2016 despite only winning the electoral vote and Biden has claimed a mandate for numerous Democratic policies despite otherwise mixed results for the Democrats, with them being reduced to the slimmest of majorities in the House and only having a majority in the Senate because Vice President Harris can break tie votes. However, in 1965 President Johnson could certainly claim a mandate.

In 1964, Johnson lived up to the previously sarcastic nickname “Landslide Lyndon” for his fraud-ridden 1948 Senate primary win by winning all but six states. This plus his Great Society Congress resulted in numerous expansions of the federal government including his civil rights program. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had a voting rights section, Title I, but it was weak. Johnson sought a bill he acknowledged was tough on the South and the way the bill was drafted it applied to only seven Southern states, Texas not being among them until 1975. Johnson, although a progressive, continued to look out for certain interests of his home state as president. Republicans had their own idea, however, of a voting rights law to pass.

I have written about William McCulloch of Ohio before as an underlooked champion of civil rights, and he had a proposal for voting rights that got the support of Minority Leader Gerald Ford. This plan differed from the Johnson Administration’s bill in two ways. First, the law applied nationwide. Second, it was not automatically triggered. 25 complaints of pattern and practice of voting discrimination to the attorney general from a county or parish would trigger the appointment of a federal registrar to confirm the complaints. Once this happened, the county or parish was covered with federal registrars registering blacks. This was a good faith effort to balance out 10th and 15th Amendment concerns, but when it became clear that numerous prominent segregationists including Howard Smith of Virginia and Joe Waggonner of Louisiana voiced their preference for this measure (they would vote in the substitute but still vote against it) it was doomed. Although the substitute’s appeal for civil rights proponents had been enhanced by the addition of Robert McClory’s (R-Ill.) amendment banning state and local poll taxes, the motion by Harold Collier (R-Ill.) to substitute the Ford-McCulloch proposal failed 171-248, with 21 Republicans breaking ranks to vote against it.

Had it been adopted, the Ford-McCulloch bill would have been an “innocent till proven guilty” standard rather than vice-versa with automatic triggering. Although I have little doubt under Ford-McCulloch that offending areas would have still been covered, “guilty till proven innocent” is a tougher approach and more in tune with the national mood than notions about universal treatment of states, especially after the brutal police response to the civil rights march on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama. McCulloch incidentally was a key opponent of a similar change to the Voting Rights Act sought by the Nixon Administration four years later, but Minority Leader Ford backed it as the primary sponsor.

“Civil Rights”. Donald Rumsfeld Library.

Retrieved from

Click to access 1965-07-09%20HR%206400%20Voting%20Rights%20Act.pdf

McCulloch, W.M. (1965, July 6). Statement of William M. McCulloch (R. Ohio) in General Debate on Voting Rights Legislation. U.S. House of Representatives.

Retrieved from

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