Fifty years after passage of the Voting Rights Act, “Give Us the Ballot” makes a powerful case that voting rights are under assault in 21st century America. Current events underscore the book’s timeliness. In September, Alabama announced it was closing 31 driver’s license offices, a disproportionate number of them in majority-black counties, making it even harder for African Americans to comply with Alabama’s 2011 law requiring voters to show government-issued IDs to cast ballots. As author Ari Berman points out, Alabama is one of nine Republican-controlled states to pass voter ID laws since 2010, and those are only the most blatant of restrictions that also include limits on early voting and rules that make voter registration more difficult. 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 Lyndon B. Johnson signed it in 1965. When the Supreme Court upheld the Voting Rights Act a year later, Southern legislators turned from preventing African Americans from voting to diluting their votes. Black-majority counties were consolidated with larger white ones; at-large elections and multi-member districts made it nearly impossible for African American candidates to gain office. Section 5 of the act, which required seven Southern states with histories of voting discrimination to submit any changes in their voting laws for federal review, became the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division’s instrument for preventing such manipulations.
“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 Justice Department seized on arguments like this to justify limiting civil rights enforcement to individual cases of intentional discrimination, which were difficult to prove.
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.