Taking a long view on the state of American democracy is hard amid the dung-flinging reality TV circus that has dominated the 2016 presidential primary season. The rise of Donald Trump and his disruptive effect on the mainstream Republican Party — and the nation at large — has overwhelmed comparatively mundane public-policy fights over such critical issues as voting rights.
But as anyone who lived through the 2000 Florida presidential recount debacle will recall, the debate over who should be eligible to vote and how those votes are counted will become increasingly relevant come November.
In his timely new book, constitutional law expert Michael Waldman argues that universal voting rights — the doctrine of “one person, one vote’’ — have been in steady retreat since that dangling-chad dead heat when “partisans realized anew that razor-thin margins can be turned by manipulation of voting rules.’’
Emboldened by big wins in the 2010 midterm elections and a controversial 2013 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that dismantled key pieces of the landmark Voting Rights Act, 16 Republican-dominated state legislatures have enacted a passel of new laws ostensibly aimed at reducing voter fraud. But critics, including Waldman, believe the statistically small threat of actual fraud is a Trojan Horse, providing cover for the real purpose: Restricting access to the polls for large constituencies that have traditionally voted for Democrats, especially blacks and Hispanic immigrants.
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A former speechwriting director and senior policy adviser to President Bill Clinton, Waldman persuasively argues that competing political interests have been brawling to narrow or expand the pool of voters since the earliest days of the republic.
“Our effort to translate ideals into the reality of representative government has been about more than process,’’ writes Waldman, who’s also the author of The Second Amendment: A Biography. “For over two centuries it’s been raw, rowdy, a fierce and often rollicking struggle for power. At every step of the way, while some fought to gain a voice in their government, others fought just as hard to silence them.’’
Beloved historical figures such as John Adams were elitists who believed that only propertied free men should be empowered to select the leaders. Adams feared a slippery slope of suffrage if working men, free blacks, women or “lads from 12 to 21’’ demanded an equal voice. “There will be no end of it…’’ Adams lamented.
Waldman crisply documents the subsequent two centuries as the franchise is expanded to freed slaves, then immigrants, and eventually women and young adults. The Fight to Vote is a raucous tale of race, gender, power and identity politics tainted by corruption, assassination, rioting, ballot-box stuffing and institutional racism against blacks in the South and poor immigrants in the North.
The first three-quarters of the book are serious, sober historical scholarship, albeit viewed through the prism of Waldman’s progressive viewpoint. In addition to his tenure in the Clinton White House, since 2005, Waldman has led the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU law school, which supports broader voting rights and campaign-finance reform as part of its broader mission to promote democracy and justice. The Brennan center is actively litigating in several fights where states are attempting to restrict voter access. To his credit, Waldman maintains a consistent, even-handed tone, largely avoiding the stridency and invective that often diminishes the credibility of many of-the-moment current affairs titles.
The final section pivots to the modern era, highlighting a number of ways that Republican-dominated states are recreating a version of Jim Crow for the 21st Century. In Florida, the fight has largely focused on the 1.54 million people who have been barred from voting due to prior felony convictions. Several states — including Florida, for a time — tried to limit early voting, particularly on the Sunday before an election when African American churches have traditionally organized “Souls to the Polls’’ efforts that largely benefited Democratic candidates.
In one of the more outrageous examples, in June 2013, just two hours after the Antonin Scalia-led conservative majority struck down key pieces of the landmark Voting Rights Act, the GOP-dominated Texas Legislature implemented “mischievous’’ new rules requiring voters to show a state-issued photo ID to vote. The new rules permitted would-be voters to use their concealed-carry gun permits but prohibited University of Texas student ID cards. The courts are still sorting out much of this mess.
While these fights are often cast in racial, ethnic and gender terms, Waldman excels at highlighting the contextual through-line played by class and economic self-interest from the Colonial era through the Gilded Age to the present-day super PACs spawned by Citizens United. Big Money versus the masses — sound familiar?
Larry Lebowitz is a writer in Miami.