But at a moment when his party is fighting with all its might to limit the number of African-Americans who make it to the polls, it’s going to be awfully hard to make a case that the GOP has their interests at heart.
That issue is on display in a trial now going on in North Carolina. But before we get to that, here’s part of what Bush had to say:
“I know that there are unjust barriers to opportunity and upward mobility in this country. Some we can see, others are unseen but just as real. So many lives can come to nothing, or come to grief, when we ignore problems, or fail to meet our own responsibilities. And so many people could do so much better in life if we could come together and get even a few big things right in government.”
That’s about as close as he came to acknowledging that racism exists, and about as much on the topic as you’ll hear from any Republican. And while Jeb will happily tout his record on things like charter schools as helping African-Americans, one topic he didn’t raise was voting rights. That may be because on that subject, his hands are as dirty as anyone’s.
When he was governor of Florida, Bush’s administration ordered a purge of the voter rolls that disenfranchised thousands of African-Americans, in a happy coincidence that made it possible for his brother to become president. The private corporation they hired to eliminate felons from the rolls did so by chucking off people who had a names similar to those of felons; people who had voted all their lives showed up on election day to be told that they couldn’t vote.
The remarkable outcome taught Republicans an important lesson. Here you had an election in which their candidate got fewer votes than his opponent, and the whole thing was decided in a state where his brother was the governor and the co-chair of his state campaign was the state’s chief election official. He won by an official margin of 537 votes, and the purge was just one of the things that made it possible. The lesson was this: when it comes to voting, we can get away with almost anything. What came out of that election, as Ari Berman documents, was a wave of Republican efforts to win elections by keeping people less likely to vote Republican from being able to cast a ballot. African-Americans aren’t the only people on that list, but they’re at the top.
So we see cases like North Carolina, where once the conservatives on the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act — a landmark law for which some African-Americans literally gave their lives — the state rushed to pass a menu of voting restrictions, all of which are designed to reduce the number of non-Republicans who make it to the polls. Young people are more likely to vote for Democrats? The North Carolina law eliminated pre-registering, where teenagers can register before they turn 18 if they’ll be of age on election day. African-Americans are disproportionately more likely to lack a photo ID? The law requires it. African-American churches mount “souls to the polls” efforts, bringing people to vote early on the Sunday before election day? The law ends early voting on that Sunday.
This law is on trial in a federal courtroom in Winston-Salem; closing arguments are happening today. To be honest, whatever happens in that trial, the five conservatives on the Supreme Court have made it clear that they are quite open to all kinds of restrictions on voting rights. So from a practical standpoint, Republicans may continue to enjoy success in their efforts to make voting as inconvenient and difficult as possible, at least for the wrong people.
But if Jeb Bush is wondering whether he can get African-Americans to vote for him, the answer is almost certainly no, and the continuing struggle over voting rights is one big reason. It’s awfully hard to convince African-Americans you love them when you’re still on the wrong side of a conflict that was at the center of the civil rights struggle. African-Americans look at places like Florida, North Carolina, Texas, or Wisconsin — or almost every state where Republicans are in charge — and say, “They’re still trying to keep us from voting, half a century after the Voting Rights Act!”
If Bush really wants to be a different kind of Republican, he could try to end the Republican war on voting rights. He could say, “We can have a secure voting system, and still make it easy and convenient for every American citizen to vote.” Because it really wouldn’t be that hard. He could advocate extended early voting (including Sundays), and looser identification measures that are geared toward allowing every legitimate voter to cast their ballot, not shutting out as many people as possible. He could acknowledge that in-person voter impersonation, the only kind of fraud that ID requirements can stop, is so incredibly rare (one investigation found only 31 cases in over a billion ballots cast between 2000 and 2014), that it’s wrong to disenfranchise thousands of people on the off-chance you might stop it. He could acknowledge that members of his party have used voting restrictions as a way to give themselves partisan advantage.
Or he could hope that showing up to the Urban League and shaking black people’s hands will be enough to wipe out decades of history, his own and his party’s. I’m pretty sure that won’t do the trick.