electionlineWeekly’s Summer Book Review

Book.reviews

[Image via electionlineWeekly]

My friend Mindy Moretti is not only a grade-A election geek but an avid reader, so it’s no surprise that she’s handed over the keys to this week’s electionlineWeekly to a series of book reviews of election-related books in anticipation of summer. If the reviews move you to purchase one or more, the links are in the titles!

Ballot Battles
By Edward Foley
Oxford University Press; 1 edition (January 4, 2016)
496 pages

Review by Matthew N. Green
The Catholic University of America

Shortly after losing the Iowa Caucus to Texas Senator Ted Cruz in late January, Donald Trump declared that Cruz had not won fairly. “Ted Cruz didn’t win Iowa, he stole it,” he wrote in one tweet, and insisted in another that “Based on the fraud committed by Senator Ted Cruz during the Iowa Caucus, either a new election should take place or Cruz results nullified.”

It would be easy to dismiss Trump’s accusation as yet another blustery taunt by the businessman-turned-demagogue.  But in fact it was a response to some well-documented fishy maneuvers by Cruz. The Texan’s campaign sent out highly deceptive mailers assigning voters low grades for failing to vote in prior caucuses (even though many had), stating that they could improve their grades if they participated in the upcoming caucus. And on Election Day he reported that rival Ben Carson was about to withdraw, implying his supporters should vote for Cruz instead.

Cruz’s penny-ante tactics probably didn’t make the difference in the outcome, which he won by a sizeable margin. But as Ned Foley makes clear in his excellent new book Ballot Battles, what Cruz did was nothing new. Sadly, fraud and deceit have long been a part of elections and election campaigns in American politics. That fraud includes not only chicanery in trying to persuade voters (as was the case with the Cruz campaign) but also questionable practices in the counting of ballots, the primary subject of Foley’s book.

Ballot Battles reviews the history of American national and state elections, identifying multiple cases since the late 18th century in which there were major disputes over ballot counting, often involving allegations of fraud or political interference. It is clear that Foley has done his research: the cases he examines are described in detail and draw from a plethora of primary and secondary sources. Thankfully, Foley is also a fine writer, and his prose brings those cases—some of which involve complex legal and political machinations—to life.

Also contributing to the book’s readability is Foley’s decision to focus on especially colorful instances of questionable election practices, many of which may be unfamiliar to readers. For instance, I had no idea that Joshua Chamberlain, the great professor-hero of the Battle of Gettysburg, had saved Maine from political turmoil by refusing to use the state’s militia on behalf of the incumbent governor, who wanted to stay in office despite losing reelection in 1879. Another amazing example of blatant election theft largely lost to history came after the 1891 election for the New York state senate, when the governor and his Democratic allies successfully disqualified three Republican victors using extremely thin legal pretenses or political machinations, turning control of the chamber over to their own party.

Foley gives special attention to two of the most controversial presidential elections in American history: the 1876 election, in which Rutherford B. Hayes was elected after suspiciously-late returns from Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina, and the 2000 election, which was effectively decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in its controversial Bush v. Gore decision. Foley summarizes both nicely, outlining both the political and legal questions surrounding each and offering his own answers to many of them. In the case of the 2000 election, Foley provides perhaps the most convincing defense I have read of Bush v. Gore, though I remain skeptical that the Court should not shoulder more of the blame for a decision that not only defied the will of a majority of voters but that ultimately yielded some profoundly negative policy consequences.

As much as I enjoyed the book, I found some aspects of Ballot Battles a bit lacking. The narrative sometimes gets bogged down in political and legal minutia that may deter the casual reader, though of course these can easily be skimmed. There is also very little discussion of the use of violence in certain Southern states in the 1870s, nor about challenges to elections conducted under Southern black disfranchisement in the 1880s and 1890s. Though these cases often revolved around election conduct than ballot counting, which is Foley’s principal area of interest, they are nonetheless powerful examples of unethical election conduct in American history that perhaps deserved fuller attention.

These minor criticisms aside, Foley has written a first-rate survey of an important topic, one that is highly readable and often insightful. Perhaps most importantly it serves as a critical clarion call to reform our country’s electoral process. As Foley’s book reveals, past crises have often been averted due to luck and the brave leadership of individuals, and there is nothing to prevent a major electoral crisis from popping up in the future, nor any guarantee we will be as lucky as we have been in the past in defusing them peacefully. Whether we adopt the author’s suggested solution—the creation of a neutral election tribunal to deal with disputed elections—or some other reform, Foley’s close and careful read of American history in Ballot Battles makes clear that we accept the status quo at our peril.

(Matthew Green is an associate professor of politics at Catholic University, an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies, and president of the National Capital Area Political Science Association.) 

Every Vote Matters: The Power of Your Voice, from Student Elections to the Supreme Court
By Judge Tom Jacobs & Natalie Jacobs
Free Spirit Publishing (February 1, 2016)
208 pages

Reviewed by Ashley Wisner, NBCT
Boonsboro High School, Boonsboro, Maryland

This is a great resource for high school students.   I currently teach 10th Grade Government and junior/senior AP Government. I also coach and constitutional competition team called We the People. This book would be an excellent resource for either of these courses and especially helpful for the research portion of the We the People competition.

First, this book is very kid-friendly. It is a quick, interesting, and an easy read. All of the stories, cases, and evidence are extremely recent. I was very happy to see the Baltimore riots related to the Freddie Gray case, the same-sex marriage case from the summer of 2015 and the most recent affirmative action cases from Texas. Every case and example used in this text is something that would either directly affect high school students or at the very least, the cases cover topics that would be of interest to high school students.

Second, this book is full of additional resources. The “Did You Know” callout boxes throughout the case descriptions give readers the opportunity to pause and consider other relevant facts. These would serve as great discussion pieces in classrooms. I really appreciated the “What if” and “Talk, Think, Action” portions of the book as well. The “What If” sections consider what could have happened if the Court had ruled differently. It gives readers the opportunity to consider the true impact of the court decisions. The “Talk, Think, Action” sections provide excellent questions for discussions and I could see using these as part of Socratic seminars or debate topics in class.

Thirdly, I think one of my favorite parts of this book if the “Further Reading and Resources” portion. Each section provides 3-5 additional links to more information. I took advantage of this and visited various links from these sections and they provide some excellent resources related to the cases described. They fit perfectly with the “Related Cases” section of the text which examines 3-5 additional Court decisions related to the case study described. This allows students to draw connections between judicial precedents and helps to predict future Court decisions on a specific issue.

Finally, the first part of the book (before the case studies) is a great resource for teaching students about voting, political participation, and political socialization. It discusses all of these topics in simple, easy-to-understand verbage and then connects these ideas to the role of the Supreme Court. This part of the book is the reader’s first introduction to the “In Other Words” callout boxes which provides direct quotes from Court justices or people close to the cases or issues being discussed.

Ultimately, I think this book is a great resource for teachers and high school students. I will personally be adding it to my classroom library and encouraging my students to use it as a resource. Specifically, it will serve as a required reading for my constitutional competition team that need to have a wealth of Supreme Court case knowledge and be able to connect that knowledge to government policies and actions.

(Ashley Wisner is a graduate of Frostburg State University with a double major in social science and history and a minor in political science. She also received her master’s degree from Frostburg with a Master of Arts in Teaching – Secondary and a certification to teach 7-12 social studies. She currently teaches Government and AP Government at Boonsboro High School in Washington County, Maryland. In addition to teaching, she coaches the 5-time Maryland District 6 Champion We the People Team!)

The Gatekeepers of Democracy
By Bill Lewers
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (April 24, 2016)
276 pages

Reviewed by Doug Chapin, director
Certificate in in Election Administration, University of Minnesota

Are you –

  • an election geek looking for a summer read?
  • a frequent voter who sees many of the same people working at your polling place once or twice a year and wonder what they do all day on Election Day?
  • a political junkie who finds the whole election process – that is, what happens after you get people to go to the polls – mystifying?

Well then, dear reader, this book is for you.

Fairfax County Virginia’s Bill Lewers has written The Gatekeepers of Democracy, a novel about poll workers and the job they do – and it’s a fun and incredibly informative read about the women and men who make elections work on Election Day.

Lewers, himself a veteran of 20 years as a Fairfax poll worker, had the brilliant idea to stage his story against a backdrop ripped from the local headlines: a midwinter special election that will decide partisan control of the State Senate.

That highly-charged vote adds to the tension that already exists between veteran Republican poll worker Carl Marsden and the inexperienced Democrat Cindy Phelps. When a change of control in the governorship results in Cindy replacing Carl as chief of their local precinct, their resulting differences – partisan, generational, experiential – bubble to the surface.

Throughout a single high-stakes election day with a seemingly non-stop barrage of questions and twists, Carl and Cindy must find a way to work with one another – and make the system work. Seeing that journey (which is liberally salted with more “ripped from the headlines” problems and challenges, along with details about the Virginia process) is a surprisingly engaging read – especially when “a situation” arises at the end of the day that will test them both – and decide the election.

Lewers’ admiration for the process and poll workers’ role in it is evident on every page – and while he says at the outset in his Author’s Notes that “this is a story written to entertain, not an election manual,” it does a pretty good job of both. [There’s even a glossary of key terms at the end!]

Summer is a good time for a love story – and The Gatekeepers of Democracy is Bill Lewers’ love letter to the everyday work of American elections. Check it out – you’ll be glad you did.

(Doug Chapin is the director emeritus of electionline.org. He is also the director of the Program for Excellence in Election Administration at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. He’s a Nats fan, a great boss (and friend) and a damn fine American.) [Aw shucks -ed.]

Give us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America
By Ari Berman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (August 4, 2015)
384 pages

Reviewed by Michael Li, senior counsel
Brennan Center for Justice

William Faulkner famously wrote about his native South, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” It’s hard not to be reminded of the quote when reading Ari Berman’s Give Us the Ballot, a gripping account of the battle for voting rights from the heady days of the 1960s to the present.

Berman shows us that a struggle that many thought had ended with the triumphant passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 in reality has never ceased to be fought. While in recent years, legislatures and the courts seem to have been engaged in a concerted effort to roll back voting rights – upholding voter ID laws and striking down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act – Berman deftly walks us through how the intellectual groundwork for those decisions often had been quietly laid decades earlier by people like Chief Justice John Roberts, then a young lawyer in the Reagan administration.

And while earlier fights for voting rights were centered on the South, Berman shows that those fights increasingly have moved beyond that region to places like Indiana and Wisconsin.

But for every colorful villain in the story (and there are plenty), the book ultimately is hopeful, showing that each generation also produces its own heroes – people like Rev. William Barber, who since 2013 has led ”Moral Mondays” protests in North Carolina over laws that sought to cut back on voting reforms, and nineteen year old Tyler Swanson, who quietly has been doing to hard work of registering and engaging a new generation of voters in Winston-Salem.

In recent years, voting rights advocates have often been on the defensive as a voting rights counter-revolution played out in the courts. But as Give Us the Ballot shows, that the story far from over.

(Michael Li serves as Senior Counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, where his work focuses on redistricting, voting rights, and elections.)

Enjoy your Memorial Day  weekend … and stay tuned; I will be taking a slightly longer weekend (and thus a short blogging break) but will return next Thursday, June 2!

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