REVIEW — The Tragedy of American Voting Rights

President Lyndon Johnson Signs the Voting Rights Act  United States National Archives

President Lyndon Johnson Signs the Voting Rights Act
United States National Archives

When Chris Weatherspoon, a black farmer from East Feliciana Parish, La., tried to register to vote in the early 1960s, he was rejected five times.  The registrar, an Exalted Cyclops in the Ku Klux Klan, administered a literacy test and said the same thing each time: “Chris, you missed just one word.”

Weatherspoon was hardly alone: East Feliciana had more than 6,000 blacks of voting age, and fewer than 3 percent were registered. In Sunflower County, Miss., the home of arch-segregationist Senator James Eastland, barely 1 percent of eligible blacks were registered.  Across the South, blacks were being turned away with impossible literacy tests, threats, and, not infrequently, violence.  

Then, on August 6, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, and everything changed. Suddenly, literacy tests were banned and federal registrars spread out across the South to sign up black voters.  In a week, Americus, Ga.’s black electorate tripled in size. In East Feliciana, in three weeks, black voter registration shot up from less than 3 percent to nearly 35 percent.

Ari Berman recounts this history in Give Us the Ballot, his compelling and important history of the struggle for voting rights in America.  If his account covered only these early days, it would be an inspiring story – but, of course, he does not.  Berman goes on to tell what happened next: new and brutally effective tactics to suppress minority votes that continue to this day.

Viewed in its totality, the voting rights story is not one of triumph, but of tragedy. It is, in fact, the central tragedy of American government: that as proud as the Founders were of establishing a democracy, the Constitution they adopted did little to protect the mechanics of elections.  We are a nation that loves democracy, but is deeply ambivalent about voting.

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America’s discomfort with universal suffrage goes back to its earliest days.  Blacks were not allowed to vote in federal elections until 1870, and women were disenfranchised until 1920.  In the early Republic, there were property requirements for voting – and poll taxes.

Of all of the barriers to voting, the ones aimed at racial minorities have been the most persistent.  Once women got the vote – long as it was in coming – they had little trouble casting ballots.  When blacks got the vote, the white establishment went to extraordinary lengths to stop them from actually voting.

As Give Us the Ballot recounts, this suppression of minority voting continued after the voting rights movement of the 1960s – after the marches from Selma to Montgomery – and after the Voting Rights Act became law.  

What came next was the “second generation” of voting barriers, as Berman calls them.  Mississippi counties began switching to at-large districts to prevent blacks from winning county commission and school board elections. When a black candidate appeared likely to win a congressional seat in Atlanta, Georgia officials quietly moved the polling places in 60 of the 62 predominantly black neighborhoods, just before Election Day, to create confusion among black voters.

All the while, conservatives tried to stop the Voting Rights Act from being reauthorized.  They came close in the Nixon Administration, and again under Ronald Reagan, but Congress never quite had the nerve to kill it off.  In 2005, under President George W. Bush, opponents of the act thought their time had come – but once again, supporters found the votes to renew the act.

Conservatives have been more successful in the courts.  Chief Justice John Roberts started his career as a leading anti-Voting Rights Act strategist in the Reagan Administration.  From his current post, he has been able to do considerable damage to the law.  Most notably, in 2013, in Shelby v. Holder, the Chief Justice and his fellow conservatives effectively struck down the system of “pre-clearance,” which required states and localities to get Justice Department approval before adopting election rules that might interfere with minority voting. It was a huge setback for voting rights – and critics rightly said the Supreme Court had “gutted” the Voting Rights Act.

Today, as Berman effectively shows, we have moved on to a third generation of voting barriers – tactics designed to appear race-neutral, but carefully devised to suppress minority voting.  One is a simple but highly effective technique: long and unequal lines to vote.  Election officials systematically make too few voting machines available at some polling places, and the burden of voting becomes too great. In the 2004 presidential election, students at Kenyon College had to wait in line for 10 hours to vote.

    Waiting time, of course, correlates strongly with race.  Majority-white voting precincts get many more machines per voter than minority precincts.  In Ohio in 2004, black voters waited an average of 52 minutes – and many waited far longer.  The average wait for whites was 18 minutes.

Long lines can change the outcome of an election.  In Ohio in 2004, about 3% of voters who showed up at the polls left without casting a ballot because of waiting times.  In Florida in 2012, an estimated 200,000 people did not vote because of long lines.  Margins of victory are often less than 3% or 200,000 votes.

A fairly effective solution to long lines has emerged: early voting, which spreads voting over days or weeks before Election Day.  It has made voting far easier in states that have adopted it, but tellingly, there is a campaign underway to cut it back or eliminate it.  In 2014, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker signed a law effectively ending early voting on nights and weekends – when it is needed most.  

The leading voting barrier of the moment is voter ID laws, which have been proliferating. They are a shrewd tactic, because they can be promoted as a protection against voting fraud – even though there are virtually no known cases of people showing up at the polls and impersonating someone else. If anyone really cared about election fraud, they would pass laws aimed at aspects of voting where it is a real concern – the use of absentee ballots, and electronic voting.

The main effect of voter ID laws is to prevent minorities from casting ballots, since blacks, Latinos, and poor people are all less likely than average to have drivers’ licenses or other government-issued ID.

The Supreme Court could stop this third-generation vote suppression, but it has shown little inclination to do so.  In 2008, it rejected a challenge to Indiana’s voter ID law.  The Court insisted there was not enough evidence the law was actually stopping people from voting. A week after the ruling, 10 elderly nuns were turned away from voting in the Indiana primary because they lacked acceptable IDs.

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There is an obvious reason these anti-voting tactics persist: because powerful people see them as a way to hold onto power.  The conservatives who promote voter ID laws and oppose early voting know that reducing the number of blacks and Latinos who cast ballots could easily mean the difference between winning the White House and holding onto Congress – or losing both.

In their most candid moments, they admit as much.  Paul Weyrich, the conservative activist who helped found the American Legislative Exchange Commission – a business-backed group that lobbies for vote-suppression laws at the state level – once told a gathering of religious conservatives how he really felt about voting.  “I don’t want everybody to vote,” Wyrich said, in a clip that lives on on YouTube.  “Elections are not won by a majority of people, they never have been . . . As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”

The playwright Tom Stoppard famously observed that “It’s not the voting that’s democracy, it’s the counting.” It is an important point, but as Berman reminds us, it is not just the voting and the counting – it is also the registering, the waiting times, the voter ID rules, and all the other technicalities.  Until our nation develops a commitment to getting all of these things right we will not have the sort of real democracy we claim to have – or that the American people deserve.    


Adam Cohen is a former member of the New York Times Editorial Board and Senior Writer for Time magazine.  He is the author of Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck (forthcoming from Penguin, March 2016).

Follow him on Twitter at @adamscohen.