Voting Rights Fables: Biased New Book Give Us the Ballot Fuels Minority Fears

This week, leading liberal election law lawyers will gather to discuss, and no doubt praise, Ari Berman’s new book on voting rights. Unfortunately, the book strays far from the truth about voting rights. It does not deserve such praise.

In Give Us the Ballot, Ari Berman -- a reporter for The Nation -- purports to provide the reader with a history of the political struggles surrounding the right to vote. As a fair and complete non-partisan account of this critical subject, Berman fails badly. This failure is not because Berman did not do extensive research on the subject, or because he does not write well. His failure to provide a fair presentation of this history, especially for the period from 2000 to the present, appears to be caused by his deliberate omissions and political biases.

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Berman covers the successful 1960 efforts to gain passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) to the present-day court battles over such voting procedures as Voter ID, same-day registration, and the use of early voting periods. As a partisan liberal/left dissertation that tells only one side of these completed voting controversies, Give Us the Ballot succeeds.

For starters, Berman lists 105 people he interviewed for his book. I know a number of these people personally. Only 11 are known to be conservative in their political views or have ties with the Republican Party.

Importantly, of these 11, none of them worked in the George W. Bush administration, an administration of which Berman is highly critical. As any good social scientist knows, if you only talk to witnesses or sources who favor one side of a controversy, you are unlikely to get the complete story.

In addition to not interviewing a broad range of people, Berman’s book appears to have serious omissions.

One shining example is his discussion of the South Carolina Voter ID case. Berman makes clear his opinion that Voter ID is a major tool for voter “suppression.” In 2011, Attorney General Eric Holder, who shared the same view, interposed an objection, under Section 5 of the VRA’s preclearance requirement, to a newly enacted Voter ID law in South Carolina.

The State challenged the legality of that objection in federal court. After a weeklong trial, a three-judge court ruled against DOJ and in South Carolina’s favor, holding that the Voter ID law was not enacted with a racially discriminatory purpose and would not have a racially discriminatory effect.

Beginning in 2013, this Voter ID law has been enforced in South Carolina without any significant problems or complaints.

Since Voter ID and the cases addressing that issue are extensively covered in Give Us The Ballot, you would think that Berman would have felt an obligation to inform his readers that in the South Carolina case, a federal court determined that the South Carolina Voter ID law was not discriminatory. However, the only thing Mr. Berman tells the readers about the outcome of the South Carolina case is that the “[f]ederal courts also blocked South Carolina’s voter ID law for 2012,” omitting the more pertinent information about the final outcome in the case.

Berman does the same thing concerning the Wisconsin Voter ID case.

A federal district court struck down the Wisconsin ID law -- but the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and upheld the law, which is now in effect in Wisconsin. Again, Berman says nothing about the Court of Appeals ruling.

This is simply dishonest reporting.