Michael To­masky

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The Em­bat­tled Vote in Amer­ica: From the Found­ing to the Present by Al­lan J. Licht­man

The Em­bat­tled Vote in Amer­ica: From the Found­ing to the Present by Al­lan J. Licht­man.

Har­vard Uni­ver­sity Press,

315 pp., $27.95

If you grew up, as I did, in the 1960s and 1970s, watch­ing (al­beit through a child’s eyes) the civil rights move­ment notch vic­tory af­ter vic­tory, you could be for­given for think­ing at the time that that happy con­di­tion was nor­mal. By high school, in the late 1970s, I be­gan read­ing some his­tory and learn­ing about the strug­gles peo­ple en­dured to win the right to vote in this coun­try. I thought then that these bat­tles were over and done and won—that a new con­sen­sus had been achieved.

This state of af­fairs ex­tended into the 1980s, and my view was re­in­forced by the ob­ser­va­tion that even con­ser­va­tive Repub­li­cans seemed to share in that con­sen­sus. Ron­ald Rea­gan backed the Vot­ing Rights Act, sign­ing into law in 1982 sig­nif­i­cant amend­ments to the orig­i­nal 1965 act. The most notable change made it eas­ier for plain­tiffs to sue states and lo­cal­i­ties un­der the act’s Sec­tion 2, which af­firmed that they did not need to prove dis­crim­i­na­tory in­tent in vot­ing laws, just dis­crim­i­na­tory ef­fect. Jesse Helms mounted a lone­some fil­i­buster in the Se­nate, but even he stood down. The bill passed both houses of Congress by large bi­par­ti­san mar­gins. “As I’ve said be­fore, the right to vote is the crown jewel of Amer­i­can lib­er­ties, and we will not see its lus­ter di­min­ished,” Rea­gan re­marked when he signed it.

But in ret­ro­spect, that mo­ment, in June 1982, may have rep­re­sented a zenith for vot­ing rights in the United States. Even as Rea­gan was sign­ing those amend­ments into law, oth­ers on the po­lit­i­cal right were de­vis­ing ways to re­verse this progress. The stan­dard method was to chal­lenge the Vot­ing Rights Act in court, which pro­duced mixed re­sults at first but in re­cent years has met with great suc­cess, from the Repub­li­can Party’s point of view: in 2013 the Supreme Court ruled 5–4, in Shelby County v. Holder, that cer­tain bur­dens im­posed by the act on states and lo­cal­i­ties with a his­tory of dis­crim­i­na­tion in vot­ing laws no longer re­flected re­al­ity—that such dis­crim­i­na­tion was no longer a prob­lem in the United States. That as­sess­ment was a bit op­ti­mistic. One mea­sure: in heav­ily black and Latino coun­ties cov­ered by the Vot­ing Rights Act, there were 868 fewer polling places in 2016 than in 2012, ac­cord­ing to a re­port by the Lead­er­ship Con­fer­ence for Civil Rights. (Be­fore Shelby, cov­ered coun­ties had to get Jus­tice De­part­ment ap­proval be­fore they could make such moves.)

In other words, from the mo­ment that black Amer­i­cans fi­nally won vot­ing rights equal to those of white Amer­i­cans, a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of white Amer­i­cans started fight­ing to undo them. My teenage self was quite naive. Forty years later, it ap­pears that what I thought was the new nor­mal was in fact an aber­ra­tion, a quick lit­tle burst of sun­shine punc­tu­at­ing an oth­er­wise bleak sky. There is no new con­sen­sus and never has been. There is just the old racist con­sen­sus, which was suc­cess­fully pricked for a cou­ple of decades but re­asserted its dom­i­nance with the help of the many mil­lions of dol­lars pumped into rightwing foun­da­tions and think tanks and ac­tivist groups like the Fed­er­al­ist So­ci­ety.

Most of this ac­tiv­ity em­anated from the places you might ex­pect—Texas, no­tably, and the deep South (Shelby County is in Alabama). There were

and when state are leg­is­la­tures their some gov­er­nors’ north­ern have been states man­sions taken in­volved, over and by Repub­li­cans. Wis­con­sin un­der its cur­rent gov­er­nor, Scott Walker, is the most con­spic­u­ous north­ern state to at­tempt var­i­ous voter sup­pres­sion ef­forts, in­clud­ing one of the coun­try’s strictest voter ID laws, a newer weapon in the arse­nal. A study by two Uni­ver­sity of Wis­con­sin po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tists found that the state’s ID law kept per­haps 17,000 cit­i­zens away from the polls in 2016, in a state Don­ald Trump won by around 23,000 votes.1 (Walker is seek­ing a third term this year, and as of late Septem­ber was trail­ing his Demo­cratic chal­lenger, Tony Evers, by four or five points.) But the bru­tal ground zero of the vot­ing wars, their Stal­in­grad, is North Carolina. This might come as a sur­prise, be­cause North Carolina, though south­ern, is no Mis­sis­sippi: it has lively cities and a di­verse pop­u­la­tion and great uni­ver­si­ties and funky, artsy Asheville. It is surely among the most cos­mopoli­tan of the states of the for­mer Con­fed­er­acy. that But the it is state pre­cisely is con­tested. for these Un­like rea­sons in South Carolina, Democrats can win there some­times. Barack Obama won there in 2008. His nar­row vic­tory over John McCain was the first for a Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial can­di­date since Jimmy Carter in 1976 (Bill Clin­ton 1See Michael Wines, “Wis­con­sin Strict ID Law Dis­cour­aged Vot­ers, Study Finds,” The New York Times, Septem­ber 25, 2017. never won the state), and only the third in the pre­vi­ous twelve elec­tions. It demon­strated how a Demo­crat can win in North Carolina: gen­er­ate a high turnout among African-Amer­i­cans, some­where close to 25 per­cent of the over­all vote, and win al­most all of it; then take at least one third of the white vote. Obama’s win was nar­row—less than a per­cent­age point—but it showed that the state was sud­denly in play, no longer re­li­ably red. Also around that time, thanks in part to Ge­orge W. Bush’s un­pop­u­lar­ity, Democrats im­prob­a­bly con­trolled as many as eight of its thir­teen con­gres­sional seats. Repub­li­cans wanted to shut this down.

In the fol­low­ing few elec­tions, af­ter the rise of the Tea Party, the Repub­li­cans roared back to power in North Carolina. In 2010 both houses of the state leg­is­la­ture flipped from Demo­cratic to Repub­li­can con­trol, a re­sult in part of the Repub­li­can Project REDMAP.2 Once they had those ma­jori­ties, the Repub­li­cans drew new con­gres­sional dis­tricts for the 2012 elec­tions to give them ten of the thir­teen seats, and ten is the num­ber they now hold. Also in 2012, the in­cum­bent Demo­cratic gov­er­nor chose not to run for re­elec­tion, and Pat McCrory, an ex­tremely con­ser­va­tive Repub­li­can, won that of­fice. Obama lost the state to Mitt Rom­ney that year by two per­cent­age points, de­spite hav­ing brought the Demo­cratic con­ven­tion to Charlotte that sum­mer. Then in 2014, Demo­cratic sen­a­tor Kay Hagan lost to Repub­li­can Thom Til­lis, lately ob­served speak­ing up in de­fense of Brett Ka­vanaugh’s nom­i­na­tion to the Supreme Court as a mem­ber of the Se­nate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee. W ith Repub­li­cans their new power, be­gan North im­ple­ment­ing Carolina’s a rad­i­cal agenda, one that stunned many ob­servers. They made large cuts to so­cial pro­grams and pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion. They tried to pass a bill osten­si­bly com­bat­ing Sharia law, to which they at­tached sev­eral abor­tion re­stric­tions;

2See my “Rat­fucked Again,” The New York Re­view, June 7, 2018. when that bill failed, they at­tached many of the same re­stric­tions to a mo­tor­cy­cle safety bill. They passed the in­fa­mous “bath­room bill” call­ing for the polic­ing of pub­lic re­strooms to pre­vent trans­gen­dered peo­ple from us­ing the fa­cil­ity of their choice, which brought re­crim­i­na­tions from even the NCAA and the Na­tional Bas­ket­ball As­so­ci­a­tion. (Til­lis, in­ci­den­tally, was the state house Speaker who helped push all this through.) It was in early 2013 that the state’s pro­gres­sives started their “Moral Mon­days” sit-ins at the capi­tol in Raleigh, led by the charis­matic Rev­erend William Bar­ber II.

The big­gest is­sue of all, though, was vot­ing rights. North Carolina’s Voter In­for­ma­tion and Ver­i­fi­ca­tion Act (VIVA) of 2013—which the state’s Repub­li­cans felt em­bold­ened to pass, it should be noted, af­ter the Supreme Court’s Shelby de­ci­sion—was a sprawl­ing piece of leg­is­la­tion that in­cluded some non­con­tro­ver­sial mod­ern­iza­tions. But it also lim­ited early vot­ing, ex­cluded the use of cer­tain forms of iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, and took a few other steps clearly aimed at re­duc­ing black turnout as much as pos­si­ble. Repub­li­cans de­nied this, of course, in­sist­ing that they were try­ing to fight voter fraud. But voter fraud, as nu­mer­ous stud­ies have shown, is wildly in­flated by Repub­li­cans and in fact vir­tu­ally nonex­is­tent. A 2014 Wash­ing­ton Post study turned up only thirty-one cred­i­ble in­stances of a voter in­ten­tion­ally im­per­son­at­ing an­other voter— out of one bil­lion votes cast.3

Al­lan J. Licht­man dis­cusses VIVA at length in a chap­ter late in The Em­bat­tled Vote in Amer­ica, while his ear­lier chap­ters pro­vide a rich his­tor­i­cal back­ground to the law. Licht­man is a his­to­rian at Amer­i­can Uni­ver­sity who has been a long-time com­men­ta­tor on cur­rent af­fairs. He turned heads in 2016 for be­ing the only prom­i­nent elec­tion prog­nos­ti­ca­tor to pre­dict that Don­ald Trump would win, based on a for­mula he’d used since 1984 built around the pop­u­lar­ity of the in­cum­bent party. The next year, he pub­lished a book pre­dict­ing Trump’s im­peach­ment.4

I would imag­ine that to most sub­ur­ban white peo­ple who drive to their jobs and thus have valid driver’s li­censes, the de­mand that vot­ers get a li­cense or some other kind of ID doesn’t sound es­pe­cially oner­ous. But we often for­get that one needs doc­u­ments to get doc­u­ments. To se­cure a driver’s li­cense in most states, a per­son needs to show a birth cer­tifi­cate and proof of res­i­dence, and per­haps a So­cial Se­cu­rity card. In the case of peo­ple who move fre­quently—young peo­ple, col­lege stu­dents, poor peo­ple, all of whom lean Demo­cratic—the ad­dresses on these cards may not match. Older AfricanAmer­i­cans born un­der Jim Crow 3See Justin Le­vitt, “A Com­pre­hen­sive In­ves­ti­ga­tion of Voter Im­per­son­ation Finds 31 Cred­i­ble In­ci­dents Out of One Bil­lion Votes Cast,” The Wash­ing­ton Post, Au­gust 6, 2014.

4The Case for Im­peach­ment (William Morrow/Dey Street, 2017); re­viewed in these pages by Noah Feld­man and Ja­cob Weis­berg, Septem­ber 28, 2017.

The crowd at a get-out-the-vote rally dur­ing a speech by Michelle Obama, Mi­ami, Florida, Septem­ber 2018

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