The Fight to Vote

By Michael Waldman | Simon & Schuster |  $28 | 400 pages | 2017

Michael Waldman‘s book, The Fight to Vote, has been called “an important new book” by The Washington Post. Waldman delves into our country’s continuing struggle to define “the consent of the governed.” The Constitution’s framers declined to create a right to vote, leaving the issue to the states. Thus began 240 years of our tumultuous history of voting fights.

When our nation was founded, only white men who owned property could vote. Waldman thoughtfully presents the arguments on all sides (and there were many). From that time until the present, as disenfranchised Americans fought for the right to vote, others have fought to stop them. Often the fights were vicious, even deadly. Only the fight for woman suffrage could be characterized as nonviolent, although American suffragists were jailed and force-fed (including lawyer Sue Shelton White from Jackson, Tennessee).

As time progressed, we counted slaves, but did not allow them to vote. Thereafter, suffrage was extended to white males without property, then to free African Americans, women, 18-year-olds, and finally to those who had been barred from voting through the use of literacy tests.

After great strides had been made following the Civil War during Reconstruction, African American voters were again disenfranchised. In 1961, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found that in 13 counties in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana — jurisdictions where black citizens were the majority — no African Americans were registered to vote. The literacy test administered in Selma, Alabama, in 1965 included these questions:

  • If a person charged with treason denies his guilt, how many persons must testify against him before he is convicted?
  • At what time of day on January 20th each four years does the term of the President of the United States end?
  • If the president does not wish to sign a bill, how many days is he allowed in which to return it to Congress for reconsideration?

In Louisiana, only black voters were asked to complete a set of 30 questions, within 10 minutes, with any mistake disqualifying the registrant. For example, question 29: “Write every other word in this first line and print every third word in the same line, (original type smaller and first line ended at comma) but capitalize the fifth word that you write.” Other registrars asked the black applicants to count the number of bubbles in a soap bar, to recount the news in a recent Peking Daily newspaper and to define Latin legal terms.

Unfortunately, it was violence perpetrated against peaceful protesters that brought about the 1957 Civil Rights Act, and finally the Civil Right Act of 1964. Still, there was no voting rights act until President Lyndon Johnson pushed through the Voting Rights Act of 1965. There were still turbulent times to be faced, but now the voters had federal legislation supporting their efforts.

Our country now faces new attacks on voting rights. Waldman focuses on the fact that the right to vote has largely been protected through the legislative process, not by the courts. Of the 17 Constitutional amendments that followed the first 10, five have expanded the right to vote. The courts have historically declined to enter the partisan fray regarding voting rights.

Unfortunately, in recent times, the United States Supreme Court has issued rulings such as Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and Shelby County v. Holder. We are now faced with actions taken to impede the voting rights of the poor, the elderly and our youth. These include voter ID laws, gerrymandering and large sums of money flooding into campaigns.

The author, president of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, explores all of the suffrage problems in an engaging manner, but leaves the reader to ponder what direction our country will take. His final conclusion is that as long as we remain vigilant, attempts to undermine our democracy through voter suppression will not prevail.
 


MARY JO MIDDLEBROOKS, a feminist known for her political activism, practices law with Middlebrooks & Gray PA in Jackson. She is a graduate of Vanderbilt Law School and is certified as a Family Law Specialist, Rule 31 Listed Mediator in General Civil/Family Mediation.

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