Fifty years after passage of the
Efforts to roll back the act's protections for minority voters are nothing new, Berman demonstrates; the first legal challenge to the law was filed five days after President
"The work of the voting section shifted from making sure people could register and vote freely to stopping election changes that denied minority voters political representation," Berman writes. "The VRA's scope and impact increased dramatically." But this shift garnered high-profile critics, including liberal-turned-neoconservative Abigail Thernstrom, who argued in an influential 1979 article in the magazine The Public Interest that Section 5 "betrayed the color-blind ideal the VRA was meant to advance." The Reagan-era
Judging voting law changes on the basis of their discriminatory effects, wrote a hard-charging young lawyer in the Ronald Reagan administration named John Roberts, "would establish essentially a quota system for electoral politics." The Roberts-orchestrated crusade against the "effects test" expansion of the Voting Rights Act failed in 1982, when Congress passed a 25-year-extension, but the seeds of the counterrevolution had been sown.
They were watered by Republican National Committee chair Lee Atwater, who in 1990 developed a cynical strategy to advocate the creation of majority-black districts in the South so that the other districts would become whiter, more conservative and, he hoped, Republican. The ill-advised decision of civil rights groups to support this strategy was vehemently rebuffed by the African American co-chair of North Carolina's redistricting committee, who warned that black voters would "find themselves confined to 'political reservations' with less political influence than they have today."
Majority-minority districts did elect more people of color to local governing bodies, state houses and the U.S. Congress. But they gave the Voting Rights Act's opponents a potent tool for recasting a law designed to redress past and present injustices as a "perpetuation of racial entitlement." Those were the words of Justice
The increasingly diverse electorate fostered by the act had made Barack Obama president, but it had also prompted a backlash of voting-restrictive legislation across the country. Anti-VRA activists could be astonishingly frank about their motives. "I don't want everybody to vote," said the founder of the American Legislative Exchange Council, which helped orchestrate more than half the voter ID bills introduced in 2011-12. "Our leverage in elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down."
And go down it did in wake of the Shelby decision. Berman closes with a grim catalog of Shelby's consequences. As he has done throughout, he mingles statistics — 800,000 registered voters in Texas lacked acceptable ID under its new law — with personal stories of the disenfranchised, such as the 83-year-old mail carrier turned away at the polls in the Texas county where he had lived and voted for 60 years. There's no question about the author's political point of view (Berman is a contributing writer for the Nation and a fellow at the Nation Institute), but he buttresses his scathing indictment with extensive documentation. National voter turnout fell to its lowest level since 1942 in the 2014 midterm elections, and the new barriers to voting may well have provided the margin of victory in close races.
It's not a happy ending, though Berman strains to find hope in the renewed commitment to voter registration of a younger generation of civil rights activists galvanized by Shelby and the restrictive laws it enabled. They will need that commitment to combat the organized opposition to expansive voting rights whose 50-year history is traced in this important and deeply distressing book.
Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America
Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 372 pp., $28