t an event in Iowa today, Jeb Bush was asked whether he believed the Voting Rights Act (VRA) should be reauthorized by the Congress following the gutting of one of its most important provisions by the Supreme Court in 2013. Bush responded: “If it’s to reauthorize it to continue to provide regulations on top of states as though we’re living in 1960, because those were basically when many of those rules were put in place, I don’t believe we should do that. There’s been dramatic improvement in access to voting, exponentially better improvement, and I don’t think there’s a role for the federal government to play in most places.” Bush is wrong on multiple counts.
First off, it’s a fallacy to assert that the VRA was important in 1965 but no longer needed. The Supreme Court rendered inoperative Section 5 of the VRA, which required states with a long history of voting discrimination to submit their voting changes to the federal government for approval. As I report in my book Give Us the Ballot, that provision blocked 3,000 discriminatory voting changes from taking effect from 1965 until 2013. It was critical not just in the 1960s but in the decades that followed as well.
This week, Alabama is in the news for passing a strict voter-ID law and then closing DMV offices across the state in majority-black counties—the very type of discriminatory voting change that would have been challenged under Section 5.
Moreover, depending on how you interpret Bush’s comments, he seems to be suggesting that the entire VRA—not just Section 5—is no longer needed, which goes far beyond what the Supreme Court ruled and would be a truly radical position. Section 2 of the VRA, which the Court left in place, has been used to challenge restrictive voting laws in states like North Carolina and Texas.