Give Us the Ballot by Ari Berman – notes

give us

THESE NOTES ARE MOSTLY ABOUT CHAPTER 5 – a very important section.

Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America
by Ari Berman
2015/362 pages
read by Tom Zingarelli 12h 4m
rating 10 /  politics
(both read and listened)

Be warned – this is a powerful book – Ari Berman, political correspondent for The Nation,    tells the story of the Voting RIghts Act of 1965,  the violent events leading up to its passage and the effects through 2015,  one year or so after the Supreme Court voted down the formula established in 1965.

The document of the Voting Rights Act:

Berman opens with a riveting Prologue which describes the actions of Congressman John Lewis,  Democratic Representative from Georgia,  on March 7,  1965 and now March 7, 2015 (50 years celebration) –  or from the Selma March to Montgomery in 1965 through that date.  But instead of really celebrating,  it was almost a day of mourning for Obama,  Lewis, whose life and thoughts are a thread through the whole book,   as well as the other luminaries who attended because the Voting Rights Act had just been emaciated – “… weakened,  it’s future subject to political rancor.”  Now the states would take care of their own citizens in terms of voting,  without meaningful oversight.

quote-1The VRA had become a tool for guaranteeing minority groups maximum electoral effectiveness,” wrote the conservative intellectual Abigail Thernstrom. In her influential 1987 book Whose Votes Count?, she dubbed the VRA “an instrument for affirmative action in the electoral sphere.”  (Prologue)

The problem became one of  whether or not the VRA should simply provide access to the ballot or if it should address the meaningfulness of the votes.  Is having the ballot alone enough or should the ballot work effectively toward  minority representation in government? –

And this is exactly what Berman addresses – how did it happen that the VRA was late in coming,  not been fully supported,  and how, even with a black president (or maybe because of a black president) it might even merely an unenforceable good idea at this point (my words).

The first several chapters are really rather exciting covering  Lyndon Johnson’s election in 1964 and his ideas to get the Voting Rights Act passed into law. This was a huge battle in itself and the chapters cover the times from Reconstruction (see  “Reconstruction:   America’s Unfinished Revolution” by Eric Foner)  to Martin Luther King, the violence of the later Civil Rights movement and the use of the 15th Amendment all the way to Johnson’s  understanding of the inherent disenfranchisement of blacks in certain key southern states was gained through the use of literacy tests, the poll tax and other methods.

The names and events  in this section are now the stuff of history, and although I remember quite a few of them,  much of the detail was certainly new to me.  (I may be the ‘ideal reader.’)   The new law had teeth,  enforcement – blacks would actually be able to get registered to vote and then really do it.  The feds sent inspectors to those southern states which were targeted  and they naturally resisted in a myriad of ways.

Berman goes back and forth between the history since Reconstruction to the difficulties of the times including the Spanish speaking voters of Texas in Chapter 4.  The personal stories were fascinating –  Charles Evers for instance (page 69)  or Modesto Rodriguez (page 93)   And the bits about Barbara Jordan – a personal hero – are fascinating.

Chapter 5,  “The Counterrevolution” covers the period just after the VRA and includes a few names I really hadn’t heard of prior, or hadn’t thought of in connection with the VRA.   Nathan Glazer and Abigail Thernstrom for a couple,  who believed that getting the vote was enough – the rest was Affirmative Action and quotas.  This was also the start of neo-conservatism and the appropriation of the phrase “color blind” by the conservatives.

But should their votes count in the ways that matter – in ways that result in meaningful representation? Should district gerry-mandering which affects the representation be scrutinized and subject to oversight?   Berman is apparently on the side of absolutely yes.  (“No taxation without ‘representation.” – is my own thinking.)  But that said, he’s not heavy-handed about it.

Other names come up in Chapter 5 because the “Counterrevolution” was / is exactly what the name implies – and it  was evident  from the federal level right on down to the local  communities.  Presidents were elected and their appointees named. Supreme Court judges were confirmed and laws were passed while Civil Rights workers died,  churches were set fire and people were shot.  States Rights would be revived.

quote-1“If the 1964 election had been a mandate for LBJ and his support for civil rights, then the 1980 election was a mandate for Ronald Reagan and his conservative counterrevolution.”  (p. 113)

The names of just a tiny handful of those wanting to weaken or reverse the VRA were George Wallace,  Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, Strom Thurman, Richard Nixon, Justice Antonin Scalia,  John LeFlore (local Alabama), District Judge Virgil Pittman, Justice Potter Stewart, Orrin Hatch, William Bradford Reynolds,  Drew Days, William French Smith, and many more – James Kirkpatrick.

The Allen decision of 1970 re New York City is interesting – to Thernstrom it was ” the precise moment when the scope of the FVRA became “definitively altered.”  (p 118).  What it did was took the VRA from being about the right to vote into the area of the right to be represented – (Affirmative Action).

So then Berman gets down to specifics with Mobile, Alabama  Judge Pittman’s response to the gerry-mandering was to set up new districts. The public was pissed.  The decision was upheld through the appeals processes until it got to the Supreme Court where it was shut because by that time it was 1980 and there were four new Nixon appointees on the bench.

The new standard to determine violation of the VRA was “intent to discriminate on the basis of race.”  And that’s about impossible to prove.

The sides were drawn – to extend the VRA or not – in what form?  –  It passed, as it was, but the interpretation was completely changed by the new neo-conservatism which had been entirely in favor of voting rights, but anything which smacked of affirmative action or proportional representation was eliminated via a new cast of characters from the Reagan years.

Jimmy Carter was one of the VRA’s strongest supporters and Earl Warren was right at his side along with LBJ . – (And Justice  John Marshall Harlan (1833-1911) is an interesting guy from history. And there were many others like Jesse Jackson leading a march of two thousand people through Strom Thurman country and Tom McCain who wanted a change from the “redistricting  from

But it was the local story of Maggie Bozeman of rural Alabama  who testified before a hearing which strikes the heart.  And  it struck the hearts of the congressmen who surprisingly passed the extension.  Reagan’s White House was taken off guard and ended up in a smush – the bill was about voting rights but the bill implied proportional representation by race. After the fact,  Reagan said he’d go with the “intent” test of the courts rather than the “effects” test.  – And the ne0-conservates in the Department of Justice won that round then the Heritage Foundation chimed in – the experienced Civil Rights attorneys were out and the inexperienced theorists were in.

But in Edgefield County, South Carolina after taking five years to rule, the conservative  Judge Robert Chapman,  a Nixon appointee,  finally said:

“There is bloc voting by the whites on a scale that htis Court has never before observed. Whites absolutely refuse to vote for a black.”

That case went back and forth until it was found the change to “at large” district had never been approved by the DOJ after the Nixon group got into office.

And the VRA passed as a 10-year extension but with the “intent” test preserved. Still the conservatives had wanted to defeat even that.  And still the legal challenges kept coming and the districting measures got changed.   But –  blacks are still severely under-represented across the country.

I was rather appalled at the lengths to which the some southern communities went to prevent black votes from counting in ways that matter (to both blacks and whites).  I mean,  Atlanta annexed several white areas!   Gerry-mandering can be done in different ways – spread the minority votes out so none count at all  or l there’s the old “at large” method –  one-city, one district type voting.   On the other hand when they are all packed into one or two districts they might get some kind of proportional representation.   And then In race-based voting the majority will get the  representative.   This was in Section 2 of the VRA which applied nation-wide but with plaintiffs having to prove discrimination.

“Under the banner of color blindness, ending busing became more important than desegregating schools, dismantling quotas  became more important than integrating the workforce or academia, and preventing proportional representation became more important than achieving a multiracial government.”  –

Chapter 6 – Challenging the Consensus

The stories continue – southern resistance to a right to representation with DOJ Civil Rights (Reynolds under Reagan) under complicity.   The NAACP worked on it and the Courts overturned it – intent was not impossible to prove.  The Civil Rights division of the DOJ was split – now working to overturn rulings they’d won before.  The Supreme Court was working with Justices who had been appointed by Presidents with differing views from  those in office at the time.

Reynolds was up for Assistant Attorney General but was defeated because of his attitude toward the Civil Rights Act and the VRA specifically.

And there was more violence,  more “at large” districting,  more everything.   And Renquist was appointed new Supreme Court Justice.

Chapter 7 – The Realignment –
Covers the discovery that redistricting for a race works for both the minorities and the majorities so gerrymandering increased – whites had more districts – blacks had one.

Chapter 8 The Counterrevolution (II)

After awhile we get to the Bush Gore election and the issue of Florida.  Then there was the issue of Ashcroft in St. Louis.  The Bush administration became far more concerned with voter fraud than with voter disenfranchisement.

The concerns had ben prioritized,  getting rid of busing was considered more important than desegregation,   and voter fraud became the bugaboo more than concern for voter disenfranchisement.  These were a couple of main differences between conservatives and liberals on this issue.  (ME:    These oppositions are like welfare regulations – if you tighten up the accountability some are going fall through the cracks,  if you loosen it there’s going to be more fraud.     When you stop busing desegregation falls by the wayside.  When you really assure voter participation you also open up avenues for fraud.  And the reverse of both is true. It’s just the way it is.)

Besides – there’s little evidence of voter fraud – a few double voters,  a few felon voters, accidental registration by immigrants,  stuff like that.

Enforcement depends on who is in office,  who is the head of the Civil Rights Dept at the DOJ –

Finally the VRA was renewed pushing aside amendments and fierce opposition from the Bush Justice Dept.  –  Westmoreland took it to the Supreme Court.

Chapter 9  Old Poison, New Bottles
Barack Obama’s winning the presidency  and it all comes together with the horrors of voter fraud and the Voter ID bill  (which amounts to a poll tax).  There were eight different states where the voter ID laws were rejected by the courts just before the elections in 2012.  And there were other problems too – long lines for one.

But even with all this information, there’s surprisingly little repetition  – except that the same types of things keep happening over and over with new twists until … the whole

Shelby County, Alabama,  one of the worst offenders,  brought a suit against the whole of Section 5 of the VRA which specifies the states to be overseen more strictly.   It seemed to the plaintiffs that the states mentioned had changed.  – The south felt they were  the ones being discriminated against now.     And the Supreme Court agreed with Scalia saying the VRA was about racial entitlement. But the new voter ID laws, many from the southern states, had not been considered – the Court found Section 5 to be outdated.   And so the burden of proof changed from the defense to the plaintiffs.

Ruth Bader Ginsberg spoke for the dissent – flamingly.

Various responses – from Therntrom to Holder and Coretta Scott King.

Chapter 10 – After Shelby

The meetings now – the arrests- the new laws – and a new wave of civil rights activism – states are the moral battlegrounds – “We don’t need / no voter ID.”  vs the “potential risk of fraud.”   North Carolina is now almost tied with Alabama for the worst reputation for liberal ideas in the nation. (And lower welfare,  fewer services,  end of some tax deductions,  banning of Sharia Law,  etc.)    “Jessie Helms as a role model.”   Activism and arrests.  Tightening of acceptable ID for voting.   “Moral Monday” arrests.  The arguments in the state legislature –  and the legislature passed several laws – no pre-registration for high school students – same-day registration,  voter ID needs a birth certificate.   (to prevent voter fraud – right).

And this is what life looked like after the elimination of the VRA.  Many stories of disenfranchised voters in Texas and Wisconsin.  And the VRA is not down and out – there are still judges who will agree that legislatures overstep their bounds and end up with discriminatory laws.   –  But the result has been a drop in voter turn-out.  They are indeed obstacles to voting – especially among the young and minority segments of the population.  And rulings can be overturned and they were – with Ginsburg stating her case – The Court does not block laws which restrict voting rights unless too obvious – like 1 in 4 in 2014.

Treyvon Matin and Michael Brown are mentioned but not Fergusson –  THat said the book ends on the note that a new age of activism is coming.

The US DOJ (Eric Holder) got involved and a law was put forth but GOP was adamant and opposed to any voting reforms. Even the old GOP supporters didn’t vote for it. No need for interference from the Feds. So it’s back to the courts.  And the burden of proof on the plaintiffs the VRA (as it now stood) was harder to enforce in those states specified.

I learned a heck of a lot from this book – about the history of Voting Rights Law,  the resistance of the South,  the differing decisions of various judges, from local to Supreme Court,   as appointed by Johnson, Carter, Nixon and Reagan.  It makes one wonder if Obama will have much of a lasting legacy if the congress has stopped approving his candidates for judgeship.  He did get 2 Supreme Court judges with a third in the works – unlikely.