“The Embattled Vote in America: From the Founding to the Present” By Allan J. Lichtman
review by MEREDITH MCKINNIE
“Among many enumerated rights that the government cannot abridge, the right to vote remained conspicuously absent and remains so to this day.”
In Lichtman’s book centered on the history of voting rights in America, the most surprising revelation is the book’s premise. The framers, our forefathers, never enshrined the right to vote in the Constitution. The legal act of voting was always in contention within each state, complicated by states vying for political power by expanding and restricting the right to vote. Now a Distinguished Professor of American History at American University, Allan J. Lichtman first delved into the topic of voting rights as a graduate student at Harvard. He wrote his thesis on the Civil Rights Act of 1965 and was provided access to historical records and interviewed attorneys affiliated with the case. Dismayed at the lack of progress on the issue since the historic legislation in 1965, Lichtman began working on voting rights cases, serving as an expert witness and advocate. Using personal anecdotes and detailed accounts of legislative twists and turns, Lichtman chronicles the winding road of American voter enfranchisement, still yet to be fully realized.
The first five chapters of the book cover voting rights legislation, both expanding and restricting the vote, through the 1960s. Initially, the framers extended voting rights to white, male property owners, narrowing the scope of who made decisions for the masses. Without power and capital, the mass of Americans had no voice. The promise of democracy remained out of touch with limits further implicated by race, gender, and immigration status. The tension of who was allowed to vote when and where was further complicated as states used the issue to collect political favor and prestige. For example, in the South, giving women the right to vote proved beneficial when considered alongside the reality of allowing black men to vote. The major movements in our country – Suffrage, Feminism, Civil Rights – all coalesced around voting and expressing one’s voice at the ballot box. Americans understood that to be adequately represented, representatives must be beholden to their constituents.
The final chapters of the book explore more recent arguments around voting rights and the Supreme Court’s decisions regarding such issues. Chapter 7 explicitly details the presidential election of 2000, in which George W. Bush beat out Al Gore, after a contested and close race in the state of Florida, a state governed by Bush’s brother Jeb. The case exemplifies the tangled web of voting laws, determined by state, country and/or parish. In acknowledging the United States as both a republic and a democracy, the battle between federal rights and state rights, particularly on the issue of voting, Lichtman explores where America has been to illustrate how the country could possibly move forward.
“The advancement of voting rights in the United States has not by any means followed a straight line of continuous disenfranchisement.”