With the American democratic experiment at a precarious moment, Allan J. Lichtman’s The Embattled Vote in America From the Founding to the Present is a timely and important book. Neither Hillary nor Trump received as many votes as Nobody, the choice of all the millions of people who stayed home. This undercuts the legitimacy of government, yet many in government make concerted efforts to prevent people from voting.
Lichtman traces the history of American suffrage from our founders choosing to leave voting decisions to the states and the states established all sorts of different standards. After the Civil War, African American men won the vote, though states crafted rules to keep them from exercising it. Fifty-six years later, women won the right to vote. In 1971, voting age was lowered to 18, recognizing that young people were dying in a war started by politicians they could not vote for or against. In 1965, the Voting Rights Act was passed to make good on the promise of the Thirteenth Amendment. Since the Voting Rights Act, there has been a constant struggle on the part of the Republicans to disenfranchise minority voters through various schemes and corresponding energy from Democrats to expand the franchise and legally combat the voter suppression efforts of Republicans.
How are votes suppressed? Gerrymandering lets politicians choose their voters so voters feel their votes make no difference. States pass laws taking the right to vote away from felons, not just while they’re in prison, but also while on parole, and permanently in some states, so a person’s right to vote can depend on where they live. Closing polling places so voters wait in long lines is a huge burden. In Arizona, some polling places served 21,000 voters! Shortening early voting, restricting voter registration and requiring burdensome ID requirements also function to reduce voter participation.
Lichtman reviews the several methods of expanding or restricting participation. He also examines the canard of voter fraud, exposing it as a two-pronged effort to decrease confidence in our electoral system which reduces participation and provides a rationale for policies that make it harder minoritized voters to vote.
This is an excellent review of the history of voting reforms, good and bad. It is full of the details that make a history interesting with examples of different politicians making their arguments, some blatantly and proudly racist. It covers the voting wars up to mid-2018 and proposes reforms for the future. I get so irritated by books that are full of the problem and have no solutions. There are solutions and Lichtman looks at them carefully.
Lichtman’s writing is clear and lively. He has an opinion and isn’t afraid to share it. This makes for an interesting book even though it’s maddening to read about legislators researching exactly how best to keep Black people from voting and justifying it as being not racist because they only tried to disenfranchise Blacks because they’re Democrats, not because they’re Black.
I highly recommend The Embattled Vote in America and there could not be a more important time to read it.
I received a copy of The Embattled Vote in America From the Founding to the Present for review from Harvard University Press.
The Embattled Vote in America From the Founding to the Present at Harvard University Press