The Voting Rights Act (VRA) turns 50 this year. As important but less celebrated than the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the VRA enfranchised millions of Americans, most of them African-American. It is not an overstatement to say that without the VRA, there would be no President Barack Obama. By prohibiting restrictions on voting such as poll taxes, the act gave rise to a sizable African-American voting bloc that proved essential to electing the first African-American president.
And yet, as Ari Berman shows in his comprehensive new book, the VRA is more imperiled than it has been at any time since it was enacted. Some of that is the result of a conservative judiciary. In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the act that required states (most in the South) to receive federal approval before altering their election laws. But there are also partisan motives at play. A Pennsylvania Republican told GOP activists that his state’s voter ID law would “allow Governor Romney to win the state.” Effectively, the post-2008 Republican obsession with “voter fraud’’ — a problem that exists in such miniscule numbers as to be inconsequential — is an attempt to reduce the growing electoral power of minorities, who overwhelmingly vote Democratic.
Berman, a writer at The Nation magazine, amasses considerable evidence to buttress this claim. Among the startling admissions he catalogues comes one from Paul Weyrich, the first director of the Heritage Foundation and an architect of the assault on voting rights: “I don’t want everybody to vote . . . our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.” There have been similar admissions from other Republican officials, such as the Columbus, Ohio, GOP chairman who said, “I guess I really actually feel we shouldn’t contort the voting process to accommodate the urban — read African-American — voter-turnout machine.”
The value of “Give Us the Ballot” lies in illustrating that the VRA has never been universally accepted. Just five days after it was passed, a Louisiana parish registrar filed a lawsuit claiming the act was an unconstitutional violation of states’ rights. One legislator used a familiar justification: His state’s literacy test was “the most non-discriminatory literacy test that could possibly be imagined.” Because states did not specify that Negroes (to use contemporary terminology) were forbidden from voting, opponents could maintain the fiction that laws such as poll taxes were not directed specifically at any race. When he struck down crucial parts of the VRA in 2013, Supreme Court Justice John Roberts wrote as if in innocence that the veneer of color-blindedness has been used for centuries precisely to discriminate. “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race,” he himself wrote in 2007, “is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”
Heroes, as well as villains, populate “Give Us the Ballot.” None is shown to be more heroic than John Lewis, the civil-rights activist turned Atlanta congressman. His name is present on the first and last pages of the book, and many in between. He was fighting for voting rights when he was beaten in Selma in 1965, and he is fighting for voting rights as he protests stricter voting identification requirements in 2015. Typical of his rectitude is Berman’s moving anecdote that Lewis supported broadening the VRA in 1975 to ease voting for Mexican Americans, who sometimes spoke only Spanish and lived in jurisdictions not subject to special federal regulations. Some African Americans worried the VRA would not be renewed at all by Congress if it was broadened. Lewis held firm: “It would be a mockery of the whole Voting Rights Act effort during the past 10 years if we leave the Voting Rights Act as it is and not cover the other minorities in this country.” The upgraded bill passed.
But a few years later, a renewed assault on the VRA began when the Reagan administration came to power. “I believe in states’ rights,” Reagan infamously told the crowd in Mississippi in kicking off his election campaign. He was speaking just a few miles from where three civil rights workers trying to register blacks had been found dead 16 years earlier. Upon taking office, Reagan immediately replaced Ted Kennedy as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee with Strom Thurmond, one of 20th century American politics’ most prominent bigots. Reagan actually signed an extension of the VRA, but the conservative revolution he ushered in led to the Republican assault on voting rights today. “It is my obligation to do what I can to complete what we started many, many years ago,” Lewis said in Selma, speaking of protecting voting rights. The year was 2013. Ari Berman convincingly shows that the fight for voting rights is far from over.
Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America
By Ari Berman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
384 pp., $28
Jordan Michael Smith is a contributing writer at Salon and The Christian Science Monitor.