Jeb Bush opposes Voting Rights Act restoration, says ballot access “exponentially better” now

Jeb “Voter Purge” Bush isn’t exactly up to speed when it comes to state-level ballot access. From earlier today:

Said Bush, in response to a question of where he stood on the Voting Rights Act:

I think that to reauthorize it to continue to provide regulations on top of states as though we’re living in 1960, because that’s when basically many of those rules were put in place, I don’t believe that we should do that. There’s been a dramatic improvement in access to voting. Exponentially better. I don’t think there’s a role for the federal government to play in most places, maybe some, but in most places where they did have a constructive role in the 60s. So I don’t support reauthorizing it as is.

There are a whole bunch of problems with this answer, starting with the fact that it’s downright confusing. The Voting Rights Act was “reauthorized” in 2006. It’s preclearance section — the one that requires states and localities with a history of racially-oriented voting laws to submit changes to their election law to the federal government for review — was struck down in 2013. Election Law Blog founder Rick Hasen thinks that Jeb’s answer is more of a reference to the latter:

I think the fairest reading of these comments is that he is opposed to something like the Voting Rights Amendments Act, which would restore Section 5 Voting Rights Act preclearance in some form which the Supreme Court gutted in the Shelby County v. Holder case. That’s not precisely “reauthorization”–the act was reauthorized in 2006, but then struck down in part in Shelby County. But this is how I think Bush took the question.

It is possible to read the comment more broadly to reject other provisions of the VRA as well, including Section 2, which provides national voting rights protection, does not expire, and was not at issue in Shelby County. If that’s what Bush meant, that’s a major statement and potentially a big change in position by a major Republican presidential candidate. I’m sure someone will follow up and ask Bush’s team if that’s what he meant, and my guess is they will say that’s not what he meant.

Either way, the most charitable version of Jeb’s answer is still way, way wrong. Ballot access is not “exponentially better” now than it was in the 1960s. And the only reason it’s at all better is because of the Voting Rights Act. Now that the law’s preclearance requirements have been invalidated by the Supreme Court (after being extended by Jeb’s brother in 2006), states and localities that were previously subject to them have enacted severe and measurably racist restrictions on ballot access — and said restrictions almost certainly decided a congressional race in 2014.

Even if that weren’t the case, however, Jeb still seems genuinely misinformed about what the current proposal to restore the Voting Rights Act would do. Rather than simply re-instating the static list of states and localities subject to preclearance, the bill would implement a dynamic system that updates over time based on whether states, you know, try to restrict voting rights based on race or other specific demographics. This means that if Alabama were able to go 25 years without, I dunno, targeting its “Black Belt” with budget cuts that restrict access to required voter ID, they could work their way off of the list of states required to submit changes to their election laws to the federal government for review. It also means that a few new states that aren’t in the South — namely New York and California — would also be subject to preclearance requirements, as their electoral systems have discriminated against Asian and Latino voters in the not-too-distant past.

So no, restoring the Voting Rights Act doesn’t mean regulating states “as though we’re living in 1960.” It means that we’re regulating states without kidding ourselves about the fact that our country, and by extension our elections, aren’t racially neutral. There’s a good reason that the states that would be covered under the Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2015 Venn Diagram quite a bit with the ones covered under the original version: America is still pretty racist, and that racism is still reflected in public policy in those states.

So not only does Jeb Bush not understand the issues surrounding restoring the Voting Rights Act, his position on ballot access is wrong on his own terms. Racism isn’t dead in America. To paraphrase Ruth Bader Ginsburg, we threw away our umbrella in 2013, and Jeb would have us believe that it isn’t still raining.

He’s wrong, on so many levels.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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