In March, President Obama delivered a powerful speech in Selma, Alabama, where he, among other things, called for Congress to restore the Voting Rights Act. Former President George W. Bush was on hand for the event, and to his credit, the Republican president who last reauthorized the VRA stood and applauded Obama’s call.
If we’re looking for areas in which Jeb Bush disagrees with his brother, we appear to have a new addition to the short list.
The former Florida governor appeared yesterday in Iowa and was asked by an audience member about the Voting Rights Act. Jeb Bush responded:
“I think if that it’s to reauthorize it to continue to provide regulations on top of states, as though we were living in 1960, because those were basically when many of those rules were put in place, I don’t believe that we should do that. There’s been dramatic improvement in access to voting – I mean exponentially better improvement.“And I don’t think there’s a role for the federal government to play in most places – could be some, but in most places – where they did have a constructive role in the ‘60s. So I don’t support reauthorizing it as is.”
It’s safe to say that’s not quite what voting-rights advocates hoped to hear from the Republican presidential hopeful.
Bush’s answer, at a certain level, was confusing, though it wasn’t entirely his fault. He was responding to a questioner who specifically asked about “reauthorizing” the VRA, though that’s not what’s on the table – George W. Bush already reauthorized the VRA through 2031. When Jeb said he doesn’t support “reauthorizing it as is,” that didn’t really make substantive sense.
What is on the table is a bipartisan bill to help restore some of the provisions of the Voting Rights Act that were gutted by conservative Supreme Court justices. We can’t say with certainty what Bush thinks about the legislation – that’s not what he was asked – though in context it was obvious that Jeb is comfortable with the high court’s ruling from two years ago.
MSNBC’s Zach Roth tried to flesh out the implications of Bush’s position.
[Bush argued] that he doesn’t see a role for the federal government on voting issues in most places. That seems to suggest that he opposes the parts of the VRA left in tact by the Supreme Court – most prominently, the provision that continues to bar racial discrimination in voting and applies nationwide. It would also mean that Bush opposes other important federal voting laws, like the National Voter Registration Act, also known as the “Motor Voter” law, which requires states to offer voter registration opportunities at the DMV and public assistance agencies.That’s a position that some on the right hold. The platform of the Texas Republican Party, for instance, calls for repeal of the VRA and Motor Voter, and calls another important federal voting law, the Help America Vote Act of 2002, unconstitutional. But it would put Bush way out of the mainstream on the issue, even among most conservatives, who accept that there’s still a role for the federal government to play in protecting access to the ballot.
As for Jeb’s assertion that access to the polls has improved over the last 65 years, there’s no denying the accuracy of the claim. Perhaps the more salient question, however, isn’t whether or not conditions are better than they were in 1960, but rather, whether voting rights have improved since 2008.