- Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in Americ by Ari Berman
This is a highly readable, important account of the back and forth struggle between voting rights activists and their opponents since the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA). The book’s purpose is to bring awareness and historical context to current attempts to limit access to voting through voter identification laws and other legislation that disproportionately affect poor and minority voters, especially in southern states. This type of legislation would never have been enacted had the VRA not been severely weakened by a 2013 Supreme Court decision that essentially nullified Section 5, which had [End Page 988] required states with a history of voter suppression to submit election law changes for approval by the federal government. Based on interviews with Justice Department officials, voting rights activists, lawyers, historians, and politicians, the book recounts the steps leading to the VRA’s gutting and the resulting repression of suffrage in our time. But it also highlights the victories, the unlikely allies, and real progress in black political access that occurred as the result of the VRA and its subsequent amendments and bipartisan renewals in 1970, 1975, 1982, 1992, and 2006.
One thing the reader will learn is the extent to which expansion of black voting was entangled in the consolidation of Republican power in the South. One of the first tactics employed by southern whites to maintain their power at the local level was to create new voting districts that diluted the new black vote so that blacks could vote but could not actually elect black officials, who had no chance in white-majority districts. The NAACP and black Democrats thus supported the creation of majority-black voting districts, a strategy condemned by many as affirmative action at the polls. But in 1988, Lee Atwater, George H. W. Bush’s campaign manager, supported their efforts because doing so would siphon African Americans away from white Democratic districts in the South, “making those districts whiter and more conservative” and bereft of reliably Democratic votes (p. 187). Thus, the Republican Party helped engineer the redistricting efforts that created black-majority districts and led to the election of hundreds of black officials in the South. It was a win-win situation for both and broke what remained of the white Democratic political structure. Southern Republicans since have sought to limit access to voting. But not all Republicans are part of that effort. There have been conservative Republicans, such as Wisconsin congressman James F. Sensenbrenner Jr., who supported the VRA and whose efforts helped strengthen and renew it. It is a complicated story, which Ari Berman tells with great clarity and fairness.
A journalist and writer for The Nation, Berman seeks to validate the VRA’s achievements while exposing current attempts to roll back the clock. But his book also contributes to recent scholarship about the implementation and impact of 1960s-era civil rights legislation, such as Gavin Wright’s Sharing the Prize: The Economics of the Civil Rights Revolution in the American South (Cambridge, Mass., 2013) and Frank Dobbin’s Inventing Equal Opportunity (Princeton, 2009). Dismantling segregation and white supremacy has not been a straight line of progress, even with the help of federal legislation; it has occurred fitfully, aided and abetted by whites of goodwill or who stand to gain from such progress. Even so, it is striking how much more resistance there seems to have been and continues to be against black and minority voting. The straggles to enact the VRA echo attempts to integrate the workplace; both were shaped by arguments over affirmative action, intent versus effect, quotas, and the desirability of engineering outcomes. Yet economic integration seems to have been more stable, more successful, and, at the end of the day, less contested than the arguably more basic right to vote. To be sure, workplace integration has been slow and uneven, but it has not gone backward...