Taking a long view on the state of American democracy is hard amid the dung-flinging reality TV circus that has dominated the 2016 presidential primary season. The rise of Donald Trump and his disruptive effect on the mainstream Republican Party — and the nation at large — has overwhelmed comparatively mundane public-policy fights over such critical issues as voting rights. But as anyone who lived through the 2000 Florida presidential recount debacle will recall, the debate over who should be eligible to vote and how those votes are counted will become increasingly relevant come November. In his timely new book, constitutional law expert Michael Waldman argues that universal voting rights — the doctrine of “one person, one vote’’ — have been in steady retreat since that dangling-chad dead heat when “partisans realized anew that razor-thin margins can be turned by manipulation of voting rules.’’
Emboldened by big wins in the 2010 midterm elections and a controversial 2013 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that dismantled key pieces of the landmark Voting Rights Act, 16 Republican-dominated state legislatures have enacted a passel of new laws ostensibly aimed at reducing voter fraud. But critics, including Waldman, believe the statistically small threat of actual fraud is a Trojan Horse, providing cover for the real purpose: Restricting access to the polls for large constituencies that have traditionally voted for Democrats, especially blacks and Hispanic immigrants.
A former speechwriting director and senior policy adviser to President Bill Clinton, Waldman persuasively argues that competing political interests have been brawling to narrow or expand the pool of voters since the earliest days of the republic.
“Our effort to translate ideals into the reality of representative government has been about more than process,’’ writes Waldman, who’s also the author of The Second Amendment: A Biography. “For over two centuries it’s been raw, rowdy, a fierce and often rollicking struggle for power. At every step of the way, while some fought to gain a voice in their government, others fought just as hard to silence them.’’