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