“Give Us the Ballot”: An Eye-Opening Look at Voting Rights in America

I recently finished Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America by Ari Berman, and I have to say: it rocked my world. Berman traces the history of voter suppression in America, the fight for the Voting Rights Act and the significance of that landmark law, and the ways in which the VRA has been fought since its inception. This continues today, when the VRA was rendered impotent by the Supreme Court causing a cascade of suppression efforts across the United States. I was challenged by so much of the information presented in Give Us the Ballot, and I highly recommend it, not just because it uncovers the mechanisms of suppression, but also because the historical context he presents is so important. Growing up I frequently heard that soldiers fought for my right to vote, so I should not take it for granted. This is true, and it’s also true that people have fought and died for the right to vote right here in America. Reading the accounts of those murdered, or beaten, simply because they wanted to vote was heartbreaking. It was also a reminder of so many things I take for granted, and an inspiration to fight for those who are disenfranchised.

I learned a lot from Give Us the Ballot, and it was tough to distill it down to four points. I think these four were the most eye-opening for me. If you’ve read it, let me know what stood out to you. If you haven’t read it yet, check it out and let me know what you think.  

1. Background of the Voting Rights Act

I have definitely taken the Voting Rights Act for granted. In my mind, it’s always been there, ensuring that all can vote. I knew nothing about the fight for the VRA and the cost of that fight. In trying to synthesize the information Berman presents, I see the fight as having had two fronts. There was the public fight, which could be seen in the protests and in the news, and there was the behind-the-scenes political fight by lawmakers and those with political influence. I don’t think the significance of the protests can be overstated. They were essential, and they also cost people their lives at the hands of white supremacists. It was here that I learned of the incredible courage of Representative John Lewis and so many others. I knew little about him prior to reading this book. His quest for voting rights, which lasted his entire life, is truly inspiring.

The political fight, what was going on behind the scenes, was also very eye-opening. The VRA was vigorously fought by lawmakers, particularly in the South. To understand this Berman explains how the VRA was designed. If a state had a documented history of voter suppression, they would receive federal oversight whenever initiating a voting law. It’s important to note that this was investigated beforehand. Federal officials went to Southern counties and investigated for voter suppression. If it was discovered then they would be subject to the VRA which provided additional oversight for their voting laws. Politically, this was fought vigorously. It was called “a communist plot” repeatedly throughout its existence. It was also shocking for me to read about the overt racism inherent in this fight. Lawmakers didn’t even try to hide it. Ultimately, the background was essential for me, and I enjoyed (even though it was painful) discovering this history.

2. The Southern Strategy and Party Switching

Berman provides an account of the “Southern Strategy” and the mass exodus of Southern politicians from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party. I found this fascinating, and incredibly important for understanding America’s current political landscape. I had heard of the Southern Strategy as it was articulated by Republican strategist Lee Atwater. His recorded interview in which he spells it out, however, was from 1981. Berman locates the Southern Strategy as occurring much earlier than I realized, and the chief architect of it was Senator Strom Thurmond who fought the VRA his entire career. This was a very interesting aspect of Give Us the Ballot.

3. I was totally WRONG about Voter ID Laws

Several years ago I defended voter ID laws, believing that they were a great way to prevent voter impersonation and voter fraud. Give Us the Ballot is the second book that I’ve read, however, that shows that origins of voter ID laws are not rooted in the discovery of mass voter fraud. In fact, many of these laws were passed after discovering miniscule amounts of fraud, which in most circumstances, were accidents and would not have been prevented by voter ID laws. Not only that, but there are all kinds of strange discrepancies in how these laws are applied. For example, in some states concealed carry permit IDs are accepted, but university student IDs are not. In one state, the voter must have a state issued voter ID, but this voter ID cannot be a public housing ID even though it is state issued. For some reason, the state issued public housing photo ID is prohibited as a form of ID for voting.

Furthermore, states have closed down BMVs and/or restricted their hours as part of “budget cuts.” The new hours are often not posted or are posted incorrectly. They also require extensive documentation, like birth certificates, which requires an in-person visit to a Department of Health and money that many citizens with low incomes cannot afford. Not to mention, that many older citizens were born at home and were not issued birth certificates. The net result is disenfranchisement of voters, many of whom voted their entire lives until these laws were passed. These laws are often initiated by Republican-led legislatures, and interestingly they tend to hurt voters aligned with the Democratic Party. It was interesting to read, however, that several Republicans have spoken out against these laws, especially as they have disenfranchised members of their own families. Ultimately, I think it’s perfectly reasonable to require some form of identification for voting, however, it does not appear that these laws are written in a way that maximizes voter participation. Instead, they are very restrictive and seem aimed at certain groups of voters. Needless to say, I was wrong in supporting voting ID laws, and I’m grateful to have a better understanding of their origins and how they are designed.

4. The Fight Continues Today

The Voting Rights Act was incredibly important for providing the right to vote to so many citizens of color. It also led to a more diverse politicians that represented diverse areas of the country. Throughout its history, it was consistently fought. The VRA always managed to prevail against this opposition because the right to vote is a key American value (Berman also details these political battles). The VRA survived intact until 2013 when the Supreme Court dismantled it, citing the achievements of the VRA as proof it was no longer needed. It was gut-wrenching reading about this, especially because, since its passage, the VRA prevented thousands of laws meant to disenfranchise American citizens. Leading up to the decision by the SCOTUS, there was a slew of voter IDs (like those mentioned in point 3). Even when the VRA was fully in place it could not prevent all laws, but it was an effective check. With it out of the way, states no longer had to worry about federal oversight and immediately began passing restrictive voting laws. After learning of the decision, North Carolina legislators literally changed a law overnight, making it more restrictive. As I read these accounts, I felt shocked and sad. It hurt to read about the amount of effort lawmakers put into making it harder to vote, and then couch their actions in protecting the electoral process. Much like reading about the background of the VRA, it was also inspiring. All across the US, citizens are pushing back against these laws and pressing their members of Congress to reinstitute the protections of the VRA. I have joined their efforts in giving to organizations fighting these laws, writing to members of Congress, and encouraging others to vote through writing postcards. I will also continue to look for other opportunities to get involved.

So those of four of my big take-ways of Give Us the Ballot. Please read it for yourself, there is no way I could do justice to all that is contained within its pages. Thanks for reading!

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