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Why the Right to Vote Is Not a Right

THE EMBATTLED VOTE IN AMERICA
From the Founding to the Present
By Allan J. Lichtman
315 pp. Harvard University Press. $27.95.

Protesters marched through Marion, Ala., on a winter night in 1965. Suddenly, the streetlights went dark and troopers charged into the crowd, beating them with clubs and blinding them with flashlights. Jimmie Lee Jackson fled with his mother and grandfather into Mack’s Café, where the police chased after them, threw him against a cigarette machine and fatally shot him in the stomach — one more victim in the battle for the right to vote in America.

Fast-forward 35 years to the Bush-Gore debacle of 2000. Republican election officials in Florida quietly dumped 180,000 ballots, casting aside one in 10 African-American votes, often for minor irregularities. Republicans on the Supreme Court invoked two centuries of jurisprudence when they stopped a recount: “The individual citizen has no federal constitutional right to vote for electors for the president of the United States.”

Allan J. Lichtman’s important book emphasizes the founders’ great blunder: They failed to enshrine a right to vote in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights. Instead, the Constitution handed control over elections to state and local governments. Local officials developed thousands of different electoral systems with no uniform standards or regulations and little oversight. Elections were organized and supervised by partisans brazenly angling for advantage. “The Embattled Vote in America” traces the consequences through American history.

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Reforms, when they came, often provoked a backlash. For example, in 1870 the 15th Amendment barred states from abridging the vote on account of race. A stronger version would have finally affirmed voting rights and prohibited restrictions like poll taxes or literacy tests. This version fell short in Congress because Northerners wanted to bar Irish voters and Westerners to ban Chinese-Americans. Even the weaker version of the amendment helped incite a reign of terror in the South and its loopholes eventually enabled the restoration of white supremacy.

Lichtman, a professor of history at American University, uses history to contextualize the fix we’re in today. Each party gropes for advantage by fiddling with the franchise. In blue states Democrats simplify voting; in red states Republicans suppress it with a long inventory of machinations: purge the rolls, convolute registration procedures, disenfranchise felons and cut back polling times and places. Small wonder turnout is so low. In 2014, 140 million people did not vote (the elections had the lowest turnout since 1942); in 2016, just 25 percent of American adults voted Donald Trump into the Oval Office.

What next? Lichtman ticks through the vital reforms. Abolish the Electoral College, automatically register voters, establish national election standards, draw less partisan voting districts, resist foreign interference and so on. Lichtman sounds dispirited about his own proposals. The odds on passing any are long — and growing longer as the Supreme Court heads rightward. In fact, real democracy would probably require even stronger medicine. Limit the court’s power to unilaterally strike down laws (as Abraham Lincoln suggested in his first Inaugural Address); break the iron grip of the two parties by introducing proportional representation for congressional elections (any state could try).

Just beyond the scope of Lichtman’s book hovers the great question of our time. Why has partisan conflict grown so fierce? One answer lurks implicit in the history. The parties have never combined racial and nativist tensions the way they do today. White men crowd into the Republican Party, immigrants and African-Americans into the Democratic. Today’s parties aggregate and amplify the old tribal antagonisms. Expect the declining white majority to do what endangered partisans have always done: block the ballot box.

Lichtman ends with a little flicker of hope. Growing outrage, he thinks, could ignite demands for change. With luck, this fine history might just help to fan the flame.

James A. Morone, the John Hazen White professor at Brown University and the author of “The Democratic Wish” and “Hellfire Nation,” is at work on a history of partisan conflict.

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