When George W. Bush became the first person to lose the popular vote and still take the White House since 1888 — with huge assists from Jeb Bush, John Roberts, Ted Cruz, and the Supreme Court — it proved to conservatives that it was too easy to vote in America.
And W.’s administration, filled with several officials who had built careers on opposing the advances of civil rights, went to work to fix that.
Ari Berman’s new book Give Us the Ballot, which is being released on Tuesday — just two days before the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Voting Rights Act — tells of the rise and what could be the fall of America’s second reconstruction. It’s the story of a revolution that begins in a nation where black women and men literally had to risk their lives to overcome hurdles to register and vote. It spans five decades in which a singularly successful piece of temporary legislation found a permanent foothold to help ground an expansion of the right to vote in places it had been denied for nearly all of American history. And it ends after the election of the first black president inspired a conservative movement rebuilt on a Southern Strategy to strike a blow to the “crown jewel of the civil rights movement” by again shrinking the most fundamental right in a democracy.
The through line of Berman’s inspiring but gut-wrenching history of the last century’s struggle for voting rights is the life of John Lewis, the youngest speaker at 1963’s March On Washington and current congressmember from Georgia. Lewis was beaten in Selma and has been a witness to or an active participant in every effort to expand ballot access in the last five decades. And his testimony provides the most stirring indictment of the right wing’s mission to retain power over a “coalition of the ascendant” with legislation that exists only to discourage the votes of minorities, students, and the poor.
You need to read this book to understand what has been won and what we risk losing. But to get a sample of the assaults on the right to vote in what he calls “counterrevolution,” here are 5 of the worst attacks on voting rights from the right since George W. Bush quite literally took office.
1. Ohio 2004.
The only reason the 2000 election even ended up in the Supreme Court was because Florida’s purge of the voting rolls left 12,000 citizens, 44 percent of them African-American, unable to vote. “We did think it was outcome determinative,” the Civil Rights Commission reported. Democrats went into 2004 determined to not forget what had happened in Florida. But on Election Day in 2004, history repeated itself, Berman suggests.
Republicans in Ohio didn’t need to purge voting rolls or stop the count, they just needed to make sure that John Kerry’s voters didn’t have easy access to the polls. “Overwhelmingly Democratic precincts in Columbus received seventeen fewer voting machines in 2004 than 2000, while heavily Republican precincts got eight more machines.” The result? Democrats had to wait hours longer to vote than Republicans. In the end, an estimated 174,000 Ohioans left their lines before voting. Bush won the state by 118,000 votes.
2. Bush’s Department of Justice fires U.S. Attorneys for not inventing voter fraud.
Beginning in 2002, the Department of Justice, led by Attorney General John Ashcroft, was on a mission to find voter fraud — while massive mortgage and securities fraud that would lead to the financial crisis went largely unattended. In the end all they proved was that they’d been wasting their time. Of more than 300 million votes cast, they’d nailed 86 convictions. Not a single case involved voter impersonation or had swung an election. Meanwhile administration officials helped suppress an Ohio State/Rutgers University study that found voter ID laws reduced Latino turnout by 10 percent and black and Asian-American turnout by 6 percent in 2004. In other words, they worked just as conservatives had designed them to. Republican donors refused to accept that there was no evidence to justify new voting restrictions and demanded that someone be punished for not finding it. After the 2006 election, respected U.S. Attorneys David Iglesias — the basis for the character Tom Cruise played in A Few Good Men — and John McKay were forced out of their jobs for failing to indict anyone for fraud Republicans were sure existed.
“It’s very frightening, and it doesn’t exist,” Iglesias said, comparing voting fraud to the bogeyman parents say is in the closet to keep kids in bed. “U.S. Attorneys have better things to do with their time than chasing voting fraud phantoms.”
3. Trying to steal the 2012 election — and failing.
If Bush losing the popular vote proved access to the polls was a problem, Obama’s landslide election had proven it had become an epidemic. In 2011 and 2012, 27 new laws in 19 states, nearly all Republican, put new limits on voting. Voter ID laws backed by The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) were introduced in 37 states, all nearly identical. In addition, five states — including the two crucial swing states with the worst records of voting integrity, Ohio and Florida — cut early voting time. The Department of Justice used Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires certain states and counties to pre-clear all changes to voting laws, to prevent the most egregious attempts to suppress the vote. But if 2012 had been as close as 2004, as many suggested it would be, it wouldn’t have mattered. Voters in Florida reported that they were forced to wait several hours and often make two trips to the polls in order to vote. But a backlash to the new restrictions so baldly targeted at minorities resulted in their turnout rising over the 2008 election. For the first time ever, a higher percentage of black voters showed up at the polls than white.
4. Gutting the Voting Rights Act.
A major subplot in Berman’s book is Chief Justice John Roberts’ passion for limiting voting rights. And ironically, President Obama’s re-election helped him build that majority he needed to do it. In his majority decision for Shelby County v. Holder, Roberts praised the law, which he had claimed was constitutional during his confirmation hearing. “But history did not end in 1965,” he wrote. Deploying the logic of “equal sovereignty” that had not been used by the Court since the Dred Scott decision deprived all black people of citizenship, he gutted Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act by throwing out the formula used in Section 4. His argument was the formula, which allows for state counties that show a strong commitment to voting rights to opt out, was not reflective of current realities.
“These men never stood in unmovable lines,” John Lewis wrote in his reaction to the decision. “They were never denied the right to participate in the democratic process. They were never beaten, jailed, run off their farms or fired from their jobs. No one they knew died simply trying to register to vote. They are not the victims of gerrymandering or contemporary unjust schemes to maneuver them out of their constitutional rights.”
5. Shelby opens the voter suppression floodgates.
The speciousness of Roberts’ argument was proven by how several of the states freed from Section 5 immediately reacted to its gutting. Texas immediately put its voter ID law into effect. Pre-Shelby this had been blocked because over half a million Latinos lacked ID and might have to pay, adjusted for inflation, more than the poll taxes that had been outlawed by the VRA, just to secure the papers needed. North Carolina was already in the process of enacting the worst set of voter suppression laws since Reconstruction. After Shelby, it toughened its voter ID law to make it more restrictive than Texas’. Voters in 14 states faced new restrictions during the 2014 elections, the first without the full protection of the VRA since 1965 and, coincidentally, the election with the worst turnout since before World War II ended.
Our voting rights landscape, Berman notes, now resembles the period before 1965. The first Reconstruction fell to violence legitimized by the Supreme Court. Whether our second reconstruction meets the same demise depends on the enduring strength of the remaining sections of the law, and the hopes of fixing it before conservatives construct permanent legislative and judicial majorities that make it possible. And while demographics may be on the side of the ascendant, the cunning effectiveness of a movement so delusional that it can only process failure as fraud presents a fearsome opposition.
“How many of you are going to leave here and remember the blood of the martyrs?” William J. Barber, the architect of North Carolina’s Moral Mondays movement that rose up in part to oppose the right’s attack on voting rights, asked a crowd in 2014.
Berman’s book is asking us that same question.
Photo: Bill Selak via Flickr