With his signature today, President Bush will renew a key part of the Voting Rights Act that singles out 16 states as still practicing voting discrimination, including his state of Texas, where he was governor for six years, and part of Florida, where his brother is governor.
Less than a decade ago, Mr. Bush fought that exact part of the Voting Rights Act, with his appointed secretary of state, Antonio O. Garza Jr., calling the provisions a burdensome and unnecessary federal intrusion into Texas’ affairs.
“The Bush administration has really done a flip-flop on this,” said Edward Blum, a senior fellow at the Center for Equal Opportunity who has studied Texas voting and the Voting Rights Act. “This is not where he was, and this is not the kind of philosophy that then-Governor Bush had when it comes to getting Texas out from under the thumb of the federal government.”
He said Mr. Bush has abandoned “the great color-blind ideals that conservatives believe in.”
The key provision is Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, designed to target six Southern states that had a history of discrimination against black voters. In the early 1970s, Section 5 was broadened to cover nine states — Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia — and parts of seven others — California, Florida, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota.
Those states and localities are deemed so discriminatory that they must get Justice Department approval every time they change voting laws or procedures — right down to moving a polling location.
With Mr. Bush’s signature, that requirement will last through 2032.
Mr. Bush says the Voting Rights Act has been a success, and last week, he told the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People that he wanted it renewed “without amendment.”
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said the law has “been an effective and important tool in assuring all Americans the right to vote,” and she said it doesn’t target Texas.
“Texas long ago came into compliance with the Voting Rights Act, and the newly reauthorized bill doesn’t change that,” she said.
Mr. Blum, though, said Section 5 clearly singles Texas out among its neighbors such as Oklahoma, Arkansas and New Mexico, which aren’t covered.
“Are Texans so different in their racial attitudes and their behavior toward minorities that Texans require supervision, but not the legislatures of those surrounding states?” he asked.
As governor, Mr. Bush’s administration agreed with that position.
“If Washington thinks we should keep putting up with such bureaucratic micromanagement like we have for the past 20 years, it can guess again. They’re wrong. We don’t need it,” Mr. Garza, said in 1997 when he asked to exempt Texas from Section 5 requirements. Texas papers at the time reported that Mr. Bush shared Mr. Garza’s view.
During Mr. Bush’s time as governor, the Justice Department used Section 5 to object to three voting changes the state made and to six changes by cities, counties and school districts within Texas.
The Senate passed the renewed provisions 98-0. The House passed them 390-33, but only after defeating an amendment designed to update the list of places subject to Section 5.
Rep. Louie Gohmert, Texas Republican, who led an effort in the House this year to change the provisions, said he wants the act to apply wherever it is necessary. But other lawmakers told him that it was easier to vote to renew the bill than to rewrite it.
“As one congressman said to me, ‘No matter how badly my state may need the requirements, explain to me again why I should vote for an amendment that subjects my state to all that mess you all have to go through?’ I think that’s what it comes down to,” Mr. Gohmert said.
“I think there is still more to be done with the Voting Rights Act in Texas, to help Texas, but at the same time, it has helped Texas so much we are better than many jurisdictions that are not covered,” he said. “So now the 41 states are saying, ‘Here Texas, let us help you remove the speck from your eye,’ never mind the log in your own.”
Mr. Bush isn’t the only former governor who finds himself urging passage of a bill that labels his state as discriminatory. Sen. George Allen, who was governor of Virginia from 1994 to 1998, also called for the provisions to be extended without amendment.
Mr. Allen’s spokesman, David Snepp, said the senator sees his vote as a statement that the state is committed to minority rights.
“He doesn’t think by voting to renew this act he is saying Virginia is one of these bad actors,” Mr. Snepp said. “He is looking at it from a different perspective, and that is a commitment to make sure the voting rights of individual citizens is protected now and in the future.”
During the House debate, Rep. Steve King, Iowa Republican, also tried but failed to change provisions that require many states and localities to print ballots in foreign languages.
Mr. Bush opposed those changes.
Mrs. Perino said Mr. Bush does think immigrants should learn English but said it can take some time.
“All Americans should be able to vote, and bilingual ballots help to ensure that even those who are not proficient in English can vote,” she said.
But Mr. King said Mr. Bush failed the first test of his own immigration proposal, which urges immigrants to learn English as a key part of assimilation.
“Assimilation lost,” Mr. King said. “Any argument that the president makes about the necessity for new immigrants to learn English has been contradicted by his support for the mandate for foreign-language ballots.
“I sit back here and I think America missed a chance to move forward, and we’ve been frozen in place and frozen in time for another 25 years,” Mr. King said. “People who were labeled racist by 1964 standards, the people in those districts will still be labeled racist, by the actions of their grandparents and great-grandparents, in 2032.”