Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

'Give Us the Ballot' Is an Urgent, Moving, Deeply Important History of American Voting Rights

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

'Give Us the Ballot' Is an Urgent, Moving, Deeply Important History of American Voting Rights

Article excerpt

The dogs. The lunch counter. The "whites-only" sign. These enduring images of the civil rights movement are visceral symbols of separation and resistance. Yet they obscure a less tangible but more profound civil rights issue: the right to vote. President Lyndon Johnson viewed the franchise as the right on which all other rights depend: "the meat in the coconut." Martin Luther King, Jr. agreed, describing voting as "the central front" in the struggle for black equality. As soon as Johnson had pushed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through Congress, he set his sights on a voting bill. Images of police brutality against peaceful marchers in Selma, Alabama -- the march itself was a voter registration effort -- shocked the nation and facilitated the bill's passage.

Fifty years ago Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act (VRA), one of the landmark statutes of the 20th century. Yet the right to vote remains precarious.

The journalist Ari Berman has just published Give Us the Ballot, an urgent, moving, deeply important history of the modern right to vote in the United States. The story has two bookends: the passage of the VRA in 1965 and the Supreme Court's decision in Shelby County v. Holder in 2013 striking down a key section of the act. Berman has performed a great service by providing a clear, detailed history of an issue that has become overwhelmed by sound bites and demagogy. Modern assaults on the right to vote in the form of voter ID laws, Berman demonstrates, are nothing new. They follow a generations-old tradition that has systematically denied the franchise to African Americans since the days of slavery and Jim Crow.

Berman focuses less on the VRA's passage than on its enforcement over the decades. The law's immediate impact was to secure the registration of African-American voters, protected by federal monitors from the Department of Justice. During the first two months, 110,000 black voters signed up; within four years, that number had grown to a million. Yet African Americans no sooner registered to vote than Southern legislatures devised new obstacles. As one observer put it, "Every time you objected to one [voting restriction], a more sophisticated response came in. It was a cat and mouse game." For this reason, the VRA's central provision became the requirement of "preclearance": the Justice Department or a federal court had to approve any change to the voting rules of states with a history of poll taxes and literacy tests.

That didn't stop states from trying. The catalog of ingenious voting restrictions that followed is both fascinating and disturbing. Berman writes that from 1965 to 2013, the courts and the DOJ blocked more than 3,000 new voting laws, many of them in the South. Some states moved from district-based to at-large voting - a shift that allowed white majorities to dilute the political power of minority communities. When blacks began to exercise more influence at the polls, states split them up in gerrymandered districts so that no one district had enough votes to elect black candidates. Other methods ensured that polling places remained hostile to nonwhite voters. …

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