"I'm not allowed to vote." - Bender "Bending" Rodriguez
"Cause you're a robot?" - Phillip J. Fry
"No. Convicted felon." - Bender "Bending" Rodriguez
Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America
By Ari Berman
372 pages (314 pages of manuscript), 2016
My favorite quote from the Revolutionary War comes from Captain Levi Preston, a veteran of the Battle of Concord who was interviewed in 1842 at the age of 91:
"Did you take up arms against intolerable oppressions?"
"Oppressions? I didn't feel them."
"What, were you not opposed to the Stamp Act?"
"I never saw one of those stamps. I certainly never paid a penny for one of them."
"Well, what then about the tea tax?"
"I never drank a drop of the stuff; the boys threw it all overboard."
"Then I suppose you had been reading Harington or Sidney and Locke about the eternal principles of liberty?"
"Never heard of 'em. We read only the Bible, the Catechism, Watts' Psalms and Hymns, and the Almanac."
"Well, then, what was the matter? And what did you mean in going to the fight?"
"Young man, what we meant in going for those redcoats was this: we always had governed ourselves, and we always meant to. They didn't mean we should." [Quote taken from Samuel Morison's Oxford History of the American People, p212-213]
America got started because a bunch of guys got pissed off because they were being told what they could and couldn't do by people whose authority they didn't have any say in granting. That many of them were also slave owners was a hypocrisy much noted and the time and since. But from 1775 through to today, the vote - that tiny but crucial institution that lets everyone have a say - has slowly expanded from only men of property to the poor, to women, and even to the descendents of the slaves themselves.
This process has not been smooth. It has seen many of its breakthroughs later tarnished by massive setbacks that sometimes last decades. But America has tended to do better the more people cast a ballot. For example, the groundwork for the enormous recent advancements in gay rights began in the 1960s when gay men in San Francisco started organizing to get the city to actually pick up the trash cans in the Castro. Once they started voting as a bloc, they suddenly had power and respect and the clean streets came with them. America gets better for more Americans the more people are allowed to vote.
Ari Berman's excellent Give Us the Ballot, which just came out on paperback, is a brief history of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which expanded the franchise to most of the country's minorities, especially black people in the South, and Latinos and Indians in the Southwest. Since then, successive Republican Administrations have done what they can to undermine the law and roll back those protections. It began with Nixon, who made enforcement much less aggressive than it had been under Johnson. Reagan's Justice Department was even less interested, and did everything it could to close up shop. Things hit their nadir with Bush the Younger, who's Administration brought in long time right wing hacks who were actively opposed to everything about the Voting Rights Act.
But Bush struck his worst blow when he appointed John Roberts and Samuel Alito to replace William Rehnquist and Sandra Day O'Connor on the Supreme Court, a massive rightward shift that resulted in the Shelby County decision, easily the worst of the entire Roberts Court. Shelby, which grew out of right wing anti-voter activism, ripped the guts out of the VRA's main enforcement mechanism on the theory - popular with racists since at least 1966 - that racism was over and it wasn't needed anymore. This self evident horseshit was refuted before the ink was even dry. Most of the states of the old Confederacy, plus several more, immediately went out and enacted explicitly racist voting laws in an effort to keep minorities (i.e. Democrats) away from the polls.
In the case of a North Carolina law that was struck down just last week, they got started literally the day after Shelby came down. Berman himself is on the case:
When it came to early voting, North Carolina admitted that it eliminated voting on a Sunday before the election because “counties with Sunday voting in 2014 were disproportionately black” and “disproportionately Democratic.” The court called this “as close to a smoking gun as we are likely to see in modern times, the State’s very justification for a challenged statute hinges explicitly on race — specifically its concern that African Americans, who had overwhelmingly voted for Democrats, had too much access to the franchise.”
Having that law go down is all well and good, and several more have been recently struck down as well, but even temporary restrictions on voting rights can have permanent consequences. In this case, the law that has now been ruled blatantly unconstitutional probably cost the Democrats a U.S. Senate seat in 2014 (from page 312):
the new restrictions affected the outcome of the election. In a fiercely contested U.S. Senate race, the Republican Thom Tillis, who as speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives, had overseen the state's voting law, defeated the Democrat Kay Hagan by forty-eight thousand votes. Nearly five times as many voters in 2010 used the voting reforms eliminated by the North Carolina GOP: two hundred thousand had voted during the eliminated first week of early voting, twenty-one thousand had used same day registration, and six thousand had cast out-of-precinct ballots.
Demonstrating the circular nature of vote suppression, Tillis himself now sits on the Senate Judiciary committee, where he has been instrumental in blocking Merrick Garland's nomination to the Supreme Court as well as a host of lower court judges like the ones who just struck down the law that got him his seat. There's no way to prove exactly how much more Democratic the House and the Senate (plus Jebus knows how many state legislatures) would be without Shelby, but North Carolina was far from alone.
Case in point: Shelby itself couldn't have happened without earlier efforts to deny the ballot. Easily the most consequential example of modern voter suppression occurred in Florida prior to the 2000 election. Jeb "Please Clap" Bush had his secretary of state purge thousands of mostly black voters from the rolls. The nominal justification for this was that these people were ex-felons who weren't allowed to vote. Setting aside the issue of felon disenfranchisement (spoiler alert: it's racist), the lists were pruned with deliberate sloppiness. Even if, say, the middle name or initial didn't match, people who shared the same first and last name of someone with a felony conviction lost their vote. From page 213:
No one could ever determine precisely how many legitimately registered voters were prevented from voting. But the commission staff director, Edward Hailes, did the math the best he could: if 12,000 voters were wrongly purged from the rolls and 44 percent of them were African-American and 90 percent of African Americans voted for Gore, that meant 4,752 black Gore voters, almost nine times Bush's margin of victory, could have been barred from the polls. It wasn't a stretch to conclude that the purge cost Gore the election. "We did think it was outcome determinative," Hailes said.
Every unmitigated disaster of Bush the Younger's presidency: eight years of inaction on climate change, the Iraq War, the Katrina response, politicizing the Justice Department, Roberts and Alito and the untold damage they've done, all of it was because of voter suppression.
That's why the recent spate of voting rights cases is more important than whatever mouth poop just dropped out of Trump. With the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, the 5-4 Supreme Court majority that gave us Shelby is now down to 4-4, which means that lower courts have more discretion to strike down discriminatory laws like North Carolina's, which in turn means that the electoral prospects for Republicans like Trump are worse than they'd otherwise be.
It's already pretty hard to concoct a plausible map where Donald Trump gets to 270 electoral votes, but it's nigh impossible to come up with one that doesn't involve North Carolina in his column. As a nice bonus, there's also a Senate race there this year, and Hillary Clinton needs all the friendly Senators she can get if she's going to do things like appoint justices to the Supreme Court who care about voting rights. With recent cases in states as far afield as Texas, Michigan and North Dakota, the shape of the voting laws will go a long way toward determining what kind of state, local, and federal representatives we all have come 2017.
Voting is governing, and the more people who can vote, the more responsive the government is. Give Us the Ballot is an easy-to-read (if often infuriating) place to begin understanding how those ancient fights affect us today. And since we live in the future, the book isn't the last word. Berman has a great Twitter feed that'll keep you up to date on the (hopefully) continuing improvements in ballot access across the country.