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The real problem with Jeb Bush’s voter registration scandal

The presidential hopeful shrugged it off in a tweet, but there's much more to the story.


Matthew Rozsa

Internet Culture

Posted on Apr 7, 2015   Updated on May 29, 2021, 3:19 am CDT

According to a New York Times report published on Monday, Jeb Bush identified himself as a “Hispanic” on voter registration form in 2009. In response to this story, Bush tweeted:

It is possible that Bush will emerge from this debacle unscathed. The same cannot be said, however, of the Republican Party, should it anoint him as their presidential nominee. To understand why this is the case, it’s necessary to take a brief look at another possible presidential candidate, this one a Massachusetts Democrat—Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

During her Senate campaign in 2012, it came out that she had openly identified as partially Native American while working as a professor at Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania, even listing herself as a minority in a directory of law professors. Because she had identified as white in her application to the University of Texas at Austin, her critics were quick to denounce her for inconsistency. 

Similarly, because Warren has been unable to provide documentation verifying her alleged Cherokee ancestry, many have claimed that she is an outright liar attempting to reap the perceived benefits of being classified as a racial minority. Michael Patrick Leahy of Breitbart best summed up these criticisms when he wrote that “lack of genealogical evidence has never stopped Sen. Warren from boldly asserting as fact something which is flatly not true.”

Although Warren’s assertion that she’s part-Cherokee is solely based on stories she claims to have heard from her family, that doesn’t automatically mean she’s lying. “The absence of readily located evidence of Native ancestry outside the oral tradition does not mean that Warren has no Native American ancestry,” explains Garance Franke-Ruta in the Atlantic, “Genealogy is a complicated field, where firm answers are hard to come by quickly.” 

Indeed, because intermarriage has been prevalent among Native Americans, there are many predominantly white individuals who have distant indigenous roots. What’s more, as genealogist Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak explained to Franke-Ruta in the Atlantic piece, “Many more Americans believe they have Native ancestry than actually do. … And someone who hails from Oklahoma would be even more prone to accept a tale of Native heritage than most.” Even if Warren is wrong about her ancestry, her error could very well be an honest mistake—and a common one at that.

By contrast, there is no reason to believe that Bush ever thought he was partially or entirely Hispanic. If his bogus claim of Latino heritage was, in fact, a sincere goof-up, it was one born of a simple paperwork error rather than a misleading oral tradition passed on by his family.

That said, when it comes to giving politicians the benefit of the doubt, it’s important to apply a consistent standard. Because both Harvard and UPenn have revealed that Warren didn’t notify them of her alleged Native American background until after she was hired, there is no solid proof that she professionally benefited by lying about being partially Cherokee—and, thus, had a motive to lie. Similarly, because there is no evidence that Bush misreported his ethnicity on previous occasions or benefited in any way from checking off “Hispanic” on his 2009 voter registration form, it is reasonable to take him at his word, at least for the time being.

None of this means that Warren and Bush shouldn’t be further scrutinized over these flaps. Just as Warren could have theoretically profited from being perceived as Native American by virtue of affirmative action, Bush could have believed that identifying as Hispanic would somehow help him politically down the road. After all, he has made no bones about the fact that he hopes to appeal to Hispanic voters. Bush speaks fluent Spanish, is married to a Mexican-American wife, and spent eight years governing a state with a large Latino community, all facts that he prominently advertises in his attempt to win one of America’s fastest growing (and hence most important) swing voting blocs.

While it’s hard to imagine what he could have hoped to gain by lying about his ethnicity on the document, the fact that his reasoning might have been asinine doesn’t mean that he didn’t actually have an underhanded motive.

While the proverbial juries are still out for both Bush and Warren; as such, a spirit of “innocent until proven guilty” should prevail. However, the same cannot be said for the conservatives who, if Bush is nominated next year, will almost certainly rally to his defense. It offers a striking parallel to the dilemma they face if Ted Cruz wins the nomination; as I wrote last month, the same birthers who denounced Obama as ineligible would be hard-pressed to defend voting for Cruz, who was born in Canada. And the conservatives who refused to take Warren’s story at face value would need to explain why voters shouldn’t display the same attitude toward Bush. After all, it isn’t like Bush is free from interrogation. If nothing else, his role in the controversial 2000 presidential election alone guarantees that his honesty is ripe for challenge.

It’s important to apply a consistent standard.

The bottom line is unavoidable: Because the same reasoning that would call for trusting Bush would make it incumbent upon voters to do likewise for Warren, his nomination would force the Republican Party to apply a double standard. This is assuming, of course, that they don’t decide to be logically consistent and drop their attacks on Warren’s claims to being part-Cherokee (which is very unlikely). Even if they wind up electing Jeb Bush next year despite this—which is hardly outside the realm of possibility, given how jaded Americans have become with politics in general—the duplicity is staggering.

If there is a broader lesson to be learned from all of this, it is one that we’ve been taught again and again throughout our history. Hyper-partisanship erodes our democratic process by making it difficult to distinguish between legitimate criticisms of our politicians and frivolous ones. What’s more, as the juxtaposition between Bush and Warren clearly demonstrates, the same mudslinging techniques used against one party can just as easily be employed against the other.

If we want to improve the quality of our political discourse, we need to apply rational thought consistently without regard to our partisan biases. Barring that, we should just acknowledge that our politics have been reduced to a no-holds-barred bloodsport and dispense entirely with the pretext that we even strive to attain something more.

Photo via NADAPhotos/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Apr 7, 2015, 5:30 pm CDT