Review: Give Us the Ballot

5 stars
An intense, meticulously researched history of the ongoing fight for voting rights in the US

We have a tendency to view history in chapters with clear boundaries (“World War II”, “The Cold War”, “Late Capitalism”). But as William Faulkner’s immortal words remind us: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Along with Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow (review), Ari Berman’s “Give Us the Ballot” is a crucial work published prior to the election of Donald Trump yet essential to understanding it, not as an anomaly but as a continuation of a past that isn’t dead—or past.

Ari Berman is a senior contributing writer for The Nation. His book is a meticulously researched history of voting rights in the United States, with focus on the period from the 1960s to the final years of the Obama administration.

Based in significant part on interviews with more than 130 individuals, including iconic civil rights figures like the late Julian Bond and Rep. John Lewis, Berman’s book brings to life the bloody, sometimes lethal struggles of African-Americans and Latinos to participate in American democracy.

Yes, you will find here a history of the Selma to Montgomery marches and graphic descriptions of racist figures like Jim Clark, whose infamous posse terrorized American citizens with whips and cattle prods. You will find a clear explanation of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 and its enforcement. But far more important is Berman’s research into what happened in the following decades.

NYT front page after "Bloody Sunday" in Selma
The front page of the New York Times after “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Alabama

A History of Counterrevolutions

First, Berman shows the many attempts, especially by southern states, to circumvent the law. From refusing to seat elected black legislators to messing with district boundaries and changing election rules, every dirty trick was tried to maintain white supremacy.

Second, the book makes it clear that, at least for a while, a bipartisan consensus in Congress helped protect the right to vote against many of those efforts. Ultimately, it was the Supreme Court, not Congress, that declawed the Voting Rights Act, just when it was urgently needed again (Shelby v. Holder).

Finally, Berman documents how the Republican Party (GOP), as the inevitable consequence of the Southern Strategy it embraced in the 1960s, became the party of voter suppression and racially charged stereotyping. Minorities and low-income voters overwhelmingly vote for Democrats, so whether or not GOP legislators harbor any racist sentiments, strategies that effectively suppress the vote of those demographics help GOP candidates.

As Heritage Foundation co-founder Paul Weyrich put it chillingly in a 1980 speech to evangelicals (video courtesy of PFAW; the quote also appears in the book):

I don’t want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people, they never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.

Since then, the rhetoric has shifted to “election integrity” and “voter fraud” to justify arbitrary changes to voting rules (including elimination of reforms like early voting or same-day registration) and voter ID requirements that disproportionately impact poor people and minorities. Beyond citing the facts, Berman illuminates them through personal stories (page 307):

During the state’s municipal elections in November 2013, [Texas voter Floyd] Carrier, an eighty-three-year-old who had been an army paratrooper in the Korean War, brought his expired driver’s license, VA card, and voter registration card to the polls in China, Texas, where he’d lived and voted for sixty years.

The poll workers immediately recognized Carrier but would not let him vote because, they said, he didn’t have a valid voter ID. “I felt terrible,” Carrier told the court, “because all I did for my country and they turn me down, so I just felt like I wasn’t a citizen anymore.”

I was moved to tears by some of these stories. As horrific as the brutal voter suppression of the Jim Crow era was, the slow unraveling of progress that has been won almost feels worse. But by telling the stories of how people fought back in the past and how they are doing it today, Berman maintains our belief that positive change is possible—it is just not guaranteed.

This book is not always an easy read: there are no illustrations, photos, maps, graphs, or tables to provide visual or quantitative context (statistics like turnout and registration data are always cited in the flow of the text), and Berman’s journalistic approach of introducing person after person after person doesn’t easily translate to a 300+ page book. I found myself repeatedly scanning back for the mentioned names, “who is this again?”

But the payoff is worth it. “Give Us the Ballot” is a crucial history for any political conscious American citizen or resident living now under a President who regularly flirts with autocrats and white supremacists (and happily uses their talking points), and who has launched a thinly disguised federal voter suppression effort. To fight back against this well-organized effort to dismantle democracy, arm yourself with the facts.