In June, as the Supreme Court term was nearing completion, voting rights activists and election lawyers were holding their breath, waiting for a decision in Gill v. Whitford, a Wisconsin case challenging the constitutionality of partisan gerrymandering. The plaintiffs argued that, in the 2011 redistricting, Republicans had effectively locked Democrats out of the political process in the state by making it almost impossible for them to translate popular vote victories into majority representation. In 2012, they pointed out, Democrats won more than 50 percent of the popular vote, but only managed to secure 39 percent of the seats in the state assembly. Two years later, the Republicans won 52 percent of the vote and nearly 63 percent of the state legislative seats. And in 2016, with the same share of the popular vote, they captured sixty-four of ninety-nine state assembly seats. Republicans did this, as they have in states across the country, by using sophisticated software to alternately “pack” and “crack” Democratic voters—sticking as many into already Democratic-leaning districts as possible, to waste their votes, while spreading the rest into safe Republican districts, to prevent them from forming a majority—with surgical precision.
Aggrieved Wisconsin Democrats sued to overturn the state election maps, arguing that the partisan gerrymandering violated both their Fourteenth Amendment rights to equal protection, by diluting the power of their votes compared with Republicans, and their First Amendment rights, by targeting them on the basis of their political affiliation. In November 2016, a federal court agreed. The state appealed, and the Supreme Court later agreed to hear the case, leaving Democrats hopeful that the Court might finally put a stop to the nationwide Republican effort to use gerrymandering to lock itself in power. Former Attorney General Eric Holder cheered the Court’s decision to take up the case. The justices, he said, “will have a chance to rein in an aggressive new breed of data-driven gerrymandering that divides communities and diminishes the voice of many Americans.” Most of that hope rested on a single justice: Anthony Kennedy, who in a 2004 opinion had suggested that he was open to the idea that partisan gerrymandering was unconstitutional. He all but invited the Gill case. But in June, instead of striking down the GOP maps in Wisconsin, a tired Kennedy punted, along with the rest of the Court, and sent the case back to the lower court for further deliberations on whether the plaintiffs even had standing to sue in the first place. Nine days later, he announced his retirement.
Gill may come back to the Court as soon as next year. That means Kennedy’s retirement puts partisan gerrymandering into the hands of his replacement—who, as of this writing, is all but certain to be D.C. Circuit Judge Brett Kavanaugh. While Kavanaugh clerked for Kennedy, he has said his real hero is the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist, a noted foe of the Voting Rights Act who spent his early years as a lawyer in the 1960s assisting with a Republican poll-watching program accused of harassing and trying to turn away black voters. In 2011, Kavanaugh endorsed the modern version of that program, upholding a South Carolina law requiring a government-issued ID for voting, even though the Obama administration had found that it violated the Voting Rights Act because it could disenfranchise tens of thousands of minority voters.
Kennedy may not have been a voting rights champion, but he occasionally threw in with the liberals to strike down racial gerrymandering schemes. His unpredictable voting patterns also likely prevented conservatives from bringing the most extreme cases to the Court out of fear of a bad ruling from Kennedy. But after his retirement, the future for voting rights doesn’t look bright. So Carol Anderson’s new book, One Person, No Vote, is well timed.
Anderson is a professor at Emory University and the author of White Rage, a book that framed events like the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, not as evidence of black rage, but as the result of a white backlash to the strides made by African Americans, not least of which was the election of Barack Obama. Similarly, One Person, No Vote provides a historical context for recent attacks on voting rights and frames voter suppression as a white revolt against minority progress in democratic participation.
In a slim volume, Anderson details the outrages of Republican efforts to target largely minority voters and to limit their influence in elections. She explores the way Republican state officials have closed polling stations and curtailed early voting in minority neighborhoods and created strict voter ID laws designed to deter voting under the pretense of fighting nonexistent voter fraud. She touches on the Gill case in Wisconsin, and devotes appropriate scorn to the 2013 Supreme Court decision Shelby County v. Holder, in which the Court’s conservatives—including Kennedy—struck down a key section of the Voting Rights Act, allowing many of these recent suppression measures to take effect and probably helping put Donald Trump in the White House.
In Wisconsin, Anderson points out, the onslaught of voter suppression tactics implemented by the gerrymandered, GOP-controlled state legislature was likely responsible for the huge drop in minority turnout in the state in 2016. In 2012, black voting rates in the state reached a high of 74 percent, according to an analysis by the Center for American Progress. By 2016, that figure fell to 55 percent. The drop was even more dramatic in heavily black Milwaukee, where in 2016, she writes, “fifty thousand fewer votes were cast in a state that Donald Trump won by only twenty-seven thousand ballots.” Some of this was doubtless due to not having a black candidate on the ballot in 2016, but Anderson notes that the drop-off in black turnout far exceeded the predictions of experts like Nate Silver.
Anderson also reminds us that the person now in charge of protecting the right to vote is Attorney General Jeff Sessions. In 1985, Sessions distinguished himself as the Alabama attorney general by gratuitously prosecuting civil rights activists who had the nerve to try to register minority voters in a county where African Americans made up 60 percent of the population, but where every single elected official was white. When the activists finally succeeded in electing black representatives to the local school board and county commission, Sessions went to war on them under the guise of rooting out fraud. Even though the prosecution failed, Sessions succeeded in putting the fear of God in African American voters. Two black women testified to a grand jury that they wouldn’t be voting anymore.
Blood-boiling stories like these come rapid-fire in Anderson’s narrative, which is also peppered with a brief history of voter suppression dating back to Reconstruction. (When it comes to white people trying to prevent black people from voting, there’s really nothing new under the sun.) She ends on an optimistic note, however. In a chapter entitled “The Resistance,” Anderson finds hope in the quiet efforts of black activists and young people in Alabama during the 2017 special election to fill Sessions’s vacated Senate seat. They managed to work around every obstacle thrown up by the white GOP power structure—from voter ID and felon disenfranchisement laws to too few voting machines to mysteriously missing wheelchair ramps at polling places—to defeat accused pedophile Roy Moore and elect Doug Jones, making him the first Democratic senator from Alabama in twenty-five years.
The story of recent GOP voter suppression efforts is one of the most important on the political landscape, and Anderson’s righteous indignation over it is more than justified. But, ultimately, her book is unsatisfying, even maddening. In large part, that’s because it’s mostly a clip job of the sort often put out by conservative authors. As I was reading, much of the material seemed familiar to me—really familiar, and not just because I’ve covered these issues for years as a reporter. A quick check of the footnotes revealed why: Anderson draws extensively from work done by no fewer than five of my colleagues at Mother Jones, particularly Ari Berman, who wrote his own book on voter suppression in 2015. I even found my own work in there, along with repeated citations of other liberal writers from Slate and the Center for American Progress’s news site, ThinkProgress.
Anderson appears to have conducted few or no original interviews that might have fleshed out some of her arguments. Quotes from experts like Kristen Clarke, who has been on the front lines of the voting rights battles as executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, come from previously published sources, which is inexplicable given how accessible Clarke is.
That said, Anderson’s work still provides value in simply connecting the dots, properly situating the seemingly disparate attacks on minority voting as part of a long-running trend of white people trying to maintain their grip on power by whatever means necessary. As Anderson suggests, the Jones election provides a road map for future political activism, but it also shows the significant uphill battle minority voters face just to exercise the franchise in the twenty-first century. The looming arrival of Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court, and dozens of Trump appointees throughout the federal judiciary, isn’t going to make it any easier.