Book Review: Voting Rights - And Wrongs, The Quest for Racially Fair Elections

Ed Cutting

Voting Rights - And Wrongs, The Quest for Racially Fair Elections by Abigail Thernstrom is a serious book by a serious scholar writing about something that she has been studying for much of the past half century.  It is a book that one must read in a quiet room, not on the deck of a pitching boat, as I first attempted. And with 58 pages of endnotes, it is the kind of text that you will read with a finger in the back as you continually flip back to see the additional information that explains what she is talking about. 

Anyone who wishes to be considered literate in social justice simply must read this book.  So should anyone wishing to understand how the idealistic goal of nondiscrimination has been perverted into the current quagmire of “gerrymandered” districts. And although it is written on a graduate student level, every political science undergrad should read this book, as should those who wish to understand how we became such a polarized nation of red and blue. 

The book contains three intertwined threads.  First there is the history, narrated by someone who was there, of the extent to which racial discrimination once existed in this country.  While being careful to be neutral in factual discussions, Dr. Thernstrom is clearly in favor of black voting rights and concludes with mention of how she and her husband picketed Woolworth’s in 1960.  Using statistics to show both where we were and where we have come, she shows how the racist South of 1960 no longer exists. 

This alone is valuable to a person of my generation who remembers the Woolworth’s lunch counter only as the place his grandmother once took him to eat when he was very young, not to mention undergraduates who only know Woolworth’s as The Sports Locker, the last remaining element of a prior century’s Walmart.  It is invaluable to those of us for whom the only de jure discrimination we know is affirmative action.  In spite of the stories we have been told about places like Birmingham, most of us have no inkling of just how bad things were a mere half century ago when only 1% of the African Americans there were even registered to vote. 

In her careful, scholarly manner, Dr. Thernstrom then details the initial Voting Rights Act of 1965 and how the subsequent reauthorizations of 1970, 1975 and 2006 have corrupted the initial (and intended to be temporary) law. She explains how we came to have Congressional districts that stretch for hundreds of miles, in one case some five hundred miles through four major media markets (the equivalent of Boston to Washington, DC) and in another case running a couple hundred miles but just the width of an interstate highway. 

With the passion of one who fought for civil rights in her youth, she goes so far as to ask if these “safe” black seats help or hurt black politicians.  She demonstrates the extent to which these seats are “stagnant” with low voter turnout, and she makes the case that the best thing that ever happened to Barack Obama was losing a race for such a seat in the Illinois Senate.  She also cites numerous examples of southern black politicians opposing federal intervention in their re-districting efforts. After all, Dr. Thernstrom asks, who would better know what was good for black politicians, the black politicians themselves or bureaucrats in far away Washington

Using a lifetime’s worth of trusted inside sources, she also reveals that the vast majority of redistricting decisions are made by unpaid college interns who in most cases haven’t even ever visited the cities over which they are exercising such enormous power.  She notes that only the most ideologically driven undergraduates spend a summer in the very expensive city of Washington without pay.  

This leads to the third thread of this book, the extent to which what she describes an “out of control” U.S. Department of Justice that has continually thwarted both the intent of the law and the efforts of courts to rein them in.  She documents the extent to which initial efforts to stop discrimination have been corrupted into advocacy for the left wing of the Democrat party and how the “gerrymandered” construction of “majority-minority” districts has served to create white suburban districts that benefit certain portions of the Republican party. 

A law intended to address discrimination has thus instead served to eliminate the moderate/conservative wing of the Democratic Party along with the populist elements of the Republican Party.  Thernstrom argues that the supposedly conservative Justice Departments under Republican presidents such as George W. Bush interfered with state redistricting decisions with vigor equal to that of Democrat administrations. She leaves it to the reader to conclude whether they were motivated by partisan advantage or social justice. 

Dr. Thernstrom documents a court system, including the U.S. Supreme Court, repeatedly attempting to rein in overly-aggressive bureaucrats.  She cites opinions by Justices Souter, Breyer and O’Connor, by no means the high court’s conservative ideologues, and describes a case involving a water district that the bureaucrats subsequently lost in an 8-0-1 decision with Justice Thomas dissenting because the decision didn’t go far enough against the federal government.  

The point, she explains, is that while the Voting Rights Act exists under the auspices of a collective right granted by the 15th Amendment, it increasingly comes into conflict with the individual rights of “due process” and “equal protection” guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.  This conflict will come to a head, the author predicts, when the Department of Justice under the Obama administration reviews redistricting plans necessitated by the 2010 census and for the 2012 election.  The wildcard in all of this will be the presence of the “wise Latina,” the newly minted Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor. 

Abigail Thernstrom’s book thus must be read for yet another reason: to understand the underlying issues related to what inevitably will be lawsuits over the 2010 Census and 2011 redistricting.  And lest we forget, Massachusetts House Speaker Thomas Finneran was convicted of a federal felony relating to this very same Voting Rights Act.  Regardless of our political views, as educated citizens we need to understand this law and this book is an excellent primer in that regard.

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