Republican presidential candidates have had plenty of opportunities to talk about voting rights.
Their debate last month was at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, and happened just hours after the NAACP’s America’s Journey for Justice rallied in Washington, D.C., and advocated on Capitol Hill for legislation to restore the Voting Rights Act (VRA). The setting would have been appropriate – as president, Reagan reauthorized the VRA in 1982 for 25 years, and said “the right to vote is the crown jewel of American liberties, and we will not see its luster diminished.”
Their first debate in Cleveland was actually held on the VRA’s 50th anniversary. It also marked 40 years since President Gerald Ford, a Republican, extended the law.
Ten years ago when the law turned 40, Republican president George W. Bush issued a proclamation calling for the anniversary to be a day of celebration to honor the VRA.
“America is a stronger and better Nation because of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. As President Johnson said upon signing the Act, it is ‘a triumph for freedom as huge as any victory that has ever been won on any battlefield.’ The Act was a great step forward in the history of our Nation, and it remains essential as we continue our progress toward a society in which every person of every background can realize the American Dream.”
A year later, Bush reauthorized the law for 25 more years.
Given the opportunities that Republican presidential candidates have had to discuss the law, and given, especially, the law’s overwhelmingly bipartisan history, it’s frustrating that Bush’s brother, Gov. Jeb Bush, doesn’t think the law is necessary. On October 8, Jeb said at an event in Iowa that “There has been dramatic improvement in access to voting” and that he would not reauthorize the law.
As Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, points out, “As Florida’s Governor, Jeb Bush oversaw the wrongful purge of thousands of Black voters from Florida’s voting roles, leading to a Voting Rights Act lawsuit against the state. Florida is now largely known for its seven-hour voting lines in African-American precincts.”
George W. Bush traveled to Selma earlier this year to honor Bloody Sunday’s foot soldiers and sat on a stage at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge as President Obama called on Congress to restore the VRA in the wake of Shelby County v. Holder.
Ari Berman, writing for The Nation, probably concluded best: “It’s a shame Jeb didn’t make the trip – he might have learned something.”
But since he missed Selma’s commemorative activities this year, he should learn from what’s happening right now in the state of Alabama. Voting discrimination in the United States isn’t a thing of the past, and a VRA – one with its full protections restored – is still desperately needed.