President George W. Bush is not a hero to voting rights advocates. His Justice Department gave the greenlight to voter ID laws, a common tactic by conservative lawmakers which prevents many younger, low-income and minority voters from casting a ballot. And Bush appointed two justices that joined the Supreme Court’s 5–4 decision striking down much of the Voting Rights Act. Nevertheless, at an event in Iowa on Thursday, Bush’s own brother claimed that the former president did far too much to protect voting rights — and that he should have placed more emphasis on states rights instead.
Legislation President Bush signed reauthorizing much of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, according to Jeb, imposed too many “regulations on top of states.”
One of the most effective provisions of the Voting Rights Act, a provision that requires states with a history of racial voter suppression to “preclear” their new voting practices with officials in Washington before those practices can go into effect, was scheduled to sunset in 2007. Despite some of his other actions that were less supportive of voting rights, President Bush signed legislation extending these provisions for another 25 years. The Voting Rights Act, Bush said at the signing ceremony for this extension, “broke the segregationist lock on the ballot box.” He also offered a relatively nuanced understanding of America’s struggle with race. Though “we’ve made progress toward equality” since the Voting Rights Act became law, Bush acknowledged that “the work for a more perfect union is never ending.”
At his appearance in Iowa, by contrast, Bush’s brother Jeb suggested that America has done enough to fight racial voter suppression and that it is time to back off. In response to a questioner who asked whether the Voting Rights Act should be “reauthorized,” the former Florida governor and presidential candidate warned against placing “regulations on top of states as though we were living in 1960.” Bush claimed that “there’s been dramatic improvement in access to voting” since the Voting Rights Act was originally enacted, and thus there is not “a role for the federal government to play in most places . . . where they did have a constructive role in the sixties.”
Jeb’s comments largely echo the views expressed by the Republican majority on the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder, which effectively deactivated the Voting Rights Act’s preclearance provisions in 2013. “Our country has changed,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for that majority. America, in Roberts’s view, has wiped away enough of its racist past that the “extraordinary measures” employed by much of the Voting Rights Act can no longer be justified.
In dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg likened Roberts’s decision to “throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.” A major reason why so much progress has been made on voting rights, Ginsburg explained, is that the fully operational Voting Rights Act halted so much voter suppression.
Since Shelby County was handed down, a number of developments suggest that Ginsburg was right. Among other things, Texas announced just two hours after Roberts delivered his opinion that it would implement a gerrymandered map and a voter ID law that were blocked under the intact Voting Rights Act. Alabama made a similar announcement about its voter ID law shortly thereafter. North Carolina enacted a comprehensive voter suppression law, a kind of omnibus anti-voter bill that combined many tactics that were enacted piecemeal in other states, less than two months after Shelby County.
As Jeb’s statement suggests, in the years since Shelby County, Roberts’s position has become Republican orthodoxy. In 2014, coalition of lawmakers that did include some Republicans introduced a relatively weak bill seeking to restore some of the preclearance regime, but the bill languished. More than a year later, a frustrated Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) introduced a stronger bill.
In an interview with The Nation’s Ari Berman, Leahy said that the new bill was more robust because it not worth making changes to the bill in an attempt to garner Republicans support. “ We made compromises to get [Republican] support and they didn’t keep their word,” Leahy told Berman. “So this time I decided to listen to the voters who had their right to vote blocked, and they asked for strong legislation that fully restores the protections of the VRA.”