One of my most profound memories of my grandmother involved looking together at a picture of my grandfather serving in the Utah Legislature. She told me of Grandpa’s commitment to democracy and service.
It stayed with me.
Latter-day Saints have a profound legacy when it comes to supporting democracy, including a robust record of supporting voting rights protections. When we think about the Latter-day Saint legacy of voting rights, it’s often in the context of women’s suffrage. White women in Utah Territory were the first in the nation to cast ballots in February 1870. Then, in 1887, as part of the anti-polygamy Edmunds-Tucker Act, Congress removed that right. But, as Barbara Jones Brown and her co-authors detail, Utah women responded by organizing to put women’s right to vote directly into the new state constitution.
When Utah became a state in 1896, it was the third that allowed women to vote. That year, Martha Hughes Cannon famously defeated her husband Angus for a seat in the state Senate. Another first.
But the story doesn’t end there. Latter-day Saint members of Congress, from both parties, have repeatedly championed legislation to strengthen our democracy, supporting voting rights during the Freedom Struggle of the 1960s, including the long push to make the guarantees of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments a reality for Black Americans.
Of the 11 Latter-day Saints who served in the Senate between 1965 and 2006, every single one supported the original Voting Rights Act or one of its reauthorizations. Wallace Bennett and Frank Moss, Republican and Democrat, both represented Utah in the Senate and both voted for the original Voting Rights Act.
In the House, the Latter-day Saint legacy of support for voting rights is likewise robust. Thirty-two Latter-day Saint representatives who served between 1965 and 2006 were in Congress for a voting rights bill and 26 of them, including Republicans Rob Bishop of Utah, Mike Simpson of Idaho and Jeff Flake of Arizona, voted in support.
Part of the inspired design of the Constitution is the distribution of power between branches of government and between the national government and the states. Previous generations of Latter-day Saint senators and representatives recognized that federal action is necessary to curb the powerful state legislators from guaranteeing their own election, even when a state’s voters pass a “Fair Maps” initiative.
The foundation of protecting voting rights is to judge voting rules based on their effect rather than the intent of the state legislators and elections administrators who create them. Latter-day Saints know this concept as “judging by the fruits.”
The 1982 reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act came after the Supreme Court decision in Mobile v. Bolden (1980), which inverted this standard to place the focus on intent (rather than the fruits). Consequently, efforts to protect voting rights in the U.S. ground to a halt.
When Congress took up the 1982 bill to restore the “effect,” or fruits standard, 6 out of 7 Latter-day Saints supported it in the House and 3 out of 3 — Jake Garn, Orrin Hatch and Paula Hawkins — voted for it in the Senate. In the most recent reauthorization, in 2006, all five Latter-day Saint senators and 8 out of 10 representatives supported voting rights, placing the health of our democracy over any thoughts of potential partisan advantage.
We need renewed courage to judge the “fruits” of election authorities. The nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice has identified 34 laws that 19 states passed in 2021 that restrict access to the ballot. Latter-day Saint members of Congress have an opportunity to continue the shared and proud bipartisan legacy of supporting legislation that protects and strengthens our democracy.
The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, for example, would update the method of judging the fruits of state legislatures and election administrators. It passed the House in August and is currently facing a Republican filibuster in the Senate, a requirement that it receive 60% support even though the laws rolling back voting rights only needed simple majorities in their respective states.
The Senate is also taking up the Freedom to Vote Act, which establishes national guidelines to ensure equal opportunity at the ballot box and strengthens the security of our elections with paper records and audit guidelines. Significantly, it bans partisan gerrymandering, making sure that a state’s congressional delegation reflects voter intent rather than the map-drawing creativity of the state legislature’s majority party, as we have seen in Maryland, North Carolina and Utah. Senate Republicans have promised to filibuster the measure, preventing even a debate on its provisions.
When I served a Latter-day Saint mission in Haiti, I learned about the nation’s momentous revolution against slavery. Haitian insurgents were so successful that they forced the French republic to embrace one of the world’s first experiments in inclusive, multiracial democracy, albeit at the time only for men. When Napoleon Bonaparte tried to bring slavery back to Haiti, the Haitian army defeated him 11 years before Waterloo, becoming the second country in the Americas to win independence.
This story has been the core of my professional work as a historian, a key step in the unfolding of inclusive democracy and liberty in our hemisphere. I learned that democracy must be continually renewed and protected by each generation. As President Joe Biden reflected in Atlanta, the battle for the soul of our democracy is never over. We must, as the president noted, make sure that the events of Jan. 6, 2021, at our nation’s capital mark “not the end of democracy but the beginning of a renaissance of our democracy.” It is time to decide whether we want to be “on the side of Dr. King or George Wallace … John Lewis or Bull Connor … Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis.”
While certainly not perfect, Latter-day Saints nonetheless have a laudatory legacy that stretches back generations in supporting voting rights and guaranteeing the principles of fairness and inclusion in our democracy. The six Latter-day Saints currently in the House and the three in the Senate must continue to carry that legacy forward.
Robert Taber is assistant professor of history at Fayetteville State University and senior fellow at Carolina Forward. In 2020 he was national director of the Latter-day Saints for Biden-Harris coalition. He is currently writing “The Haitian Revolution and the Making of the Modern World,” under contract with Reaktion Books.