The Fight to Vote
by Michael Waldman
Reviewed by Claire Hancock
It seems counterintuitive that this review of a history book would begin with “as of the date of this writing.” But, as of the date of this writing, top national news stories include, among others, gerrymandering in North Carolina, felon disfranchisement in Florida, and voter suppression in Alabama. Michael Waldman’s The Fight to Vote asks the questions: Was it always this way? Has it always been a fight to vote? How does this moment compare to the past? Answer: Today’s fights are intense and controversial, but not new. The fight to vote has been at the center of American life from the beginning of our country, for over 240 years; this is not the first go-round of any particular political mechanism, it’s just the 21st century’s version of it.
The Fight to Vote comprehensively illuminates how the history of voting rights does not move in only one direction; that instead, there have been times of expansion and contraction. In illustrating how voting laws changes tend to follow seismic historical events leading to an expansion of democracy, Waldman vividly uses the example of Abraham Lincoln. All through his political career, Lincoln was against extending voting rights to blacks, but the Civil War changed him. After the surrender at Appomattox, from the second floor of the White House, Lincoln announced he was wrong not to extend voting rights to black men, and intended that to change. At least one person in the audience understood the significance of this change, John Wilkes Booth.
Waldman is also an intriguing storyteller of lesser-known characters from the “nooks and crannies” of our history. For example, there is Harry Burns, a 24-year-old state representative from Tennessee, who received a letter from his mother that read: “be a good boy and listen to your mother,” on the day of his historic tie-breaking vote for passage of the 19th Amendment, allowing women the right to vote. Or the story of the first time the phrase, “one person, one vote,” was used by John Lewis in 1963 speaking at the March on Washington — and he got it from Nelson Mandela. As to voter suppression, just hours after the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its opinion in Shelby County in 2013, the State of Texas enacted a voter I.D. law in which a voter could not present their University of Texas student I.D., but could present their concealed carry gun permit, instantly causing 608,000 Texas citizens to lose their right to vote.
Michael Waldman is the president of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, and a former director of speechwriting for President Bill Clinton. This book is the product of a decade of work. It is exhaustedly researched; there are 269 footnotes. Although a scholarly work, Waldman’s writing style is breezy and engaging, sprinkled with appreciated and welcomed dry humor.
Although The Fight to Vote was initially published in 2016, an updated “Afterwords” was added in the 2017 edition. Waldman provides forewarnings as to the outcome of the tumultuous 2016 election. He encourages us to understand our past, as that knowledge will give us the power to make discernments and provide context to our present, so as to protect against the corrosion of our democratic institutions. By brawl, if necessary.
Claire Hancock of Tampa is a member of The Florida Bar.