FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
January 13, 2022
At a moment when American democracy stands at the precipice, this new updated edition of THE FIGHT TO VOTE, complete with two new chapters, puts the events of the last two years into historical context — and lays out their potential impact on voters and the country’s future.
Michael Waldman’s THE FIGHT TO VOTE (updated edition, Simon & Schuster; Paperback; January 18, 2022; $20) includes 66 pages of new material — a vivid first draft of history. In it, he tells the story of the dramatic election of 2020 … Donald Trump’s unprecedented bid to reverse the results, including the January 6th insurrection … the new wave of restrictive state voting laws … and the fight for federal voting rights legislation.
THE FIGHT TO VOTE was the first book to trace the history of voting rights from the Founders’ debates, to the civil rights era, to the dire consequences of the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act. The late Rep. John Lewis said of the book in 2016, “Waldman delivers a message every American needs to hear.” In its new edition, Waldman’s book is even more critical for understanding the fight for voting rights in Congress and its ramifications for the future of American democracy.
The Washington Post chose THE FIGHT TO VOTE as a notable nonfiction book of the year when it was first published. The Wall Street Journal called it an “engaging, concise history of American voting practices” that “offers many useful reforms that advocates on both sides of the aisle should consider.” Linda Greenhouse wrote, “The Fight to Vote is an important and powerful reminder that we forget American history at our peril: that democracy was hard-won and that with the right to vote once again under attack, it’s ours to lose.” And Taylor Branch, author of America in the King Years, said that “Michael Waldman’s masterly history reminds us that ‘We the People’ can and must restore our experiment in Constitutional freedom.”
Waldman, author of The Second Amendment: A Biography and president of the Brennan Center for Justice, is a leading law scholar, public policy advocate, and commentator.
“Some eras are quiet,” he writes. “In others, great forces clash, bringing about breakthroughs in participation — or a lurch backward. That’s where we are today: one of the most intense moments in our history in the fight for a meaningful right to vote.”
This is history in the making, for the first time placed in the context of the long fight to expand voting rights to all. The book describes how:
- The pandemic almost undid the 2020 election. “The health crisis became a democracy crisis. Quite literally, there might not have been a free and fair election in 2020.” Waldman shows how the country found a way to vote in other emergencies, including the Civil War and the Spanish Flu of 1918.
- An unprecedented civic coalition of voting rights activists, business leaders, and nonpartisan election officials mobilized to save the election — a story that has not been fully told before. “Despite the pandemic, despite voter suppression and lies, the country saw the highest turnout since 1900,” Waldman writes.
- Donald Trump concocted the Big Lie of a stolen election. Waldman demolishes these lurid fraud claims. “Trump’s actions during those three months, between the election and the end of his term, were the worst things he did as president—and arguably the worst thing any president has done in years.”
- The Big Lie has driven a wave of voting restrictions in states across the country – starting with Georgia’s governor signing a restrictive bill seated in front of a painting of a slave plantation. THE FIGHT TO VOTE is the first book to describe this new wave of laws, the most sweeping bid to curb voting since the Jim Crow era.
- All of these events set up an epic clash: As states rush to restrict the vote, Congress has the power to stop that voter suppression in its tracks—legally and constitutionally. The great question is whether it has the political will to do so. The book tells the up-to-the-minute story of a showdown on Capitol Hill as Democrats struggle to pass federal voting rights legislation – the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.
The book has surprising new materials:
- The intensely partisan nature of debates over voting is not new. Waldman tells the story of the fight to expand voting rights to poor and working-class white men in the 1830s, led by Democrats … the push by Republicans for voting rights for freed Black men in the 1860s … and the GOP-led drive to restrict voting rights that began two decades ago, well before Donald Trump was in office.
- The first federal voting bill to be blocked by a Senate filibuster was in 1890. When Henry Cabot Lodge’s proposal to protect the voting rights of Black men was blocked, it led to the creation of Jim Crow constitutions in Southern states and seven decades of disenfranchisement.
- Waldman traces the phrase “The Big Lie” to a U.S. Army psychological study of Adolf Hitler from 1943. According to the analysis, the dictator lived by the belief that “people will believe a big lie sooner than a little one; and if you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it.”
- He predicts the next big Supreme Court fight on voting: a claim that the Constitution gave state legislatures the exclusive power to set voting rules, a notion that no court has endorsed but which seems to have the support of at least four Supreme Court justices.
Waldman’s book is an urgent reminder that voting rights have never been — and still are not — a guarantee. He emphasizes that the fight to vote has been at the center of American politics since the nation’s founding: “It didn’t start at Selma,” he notes. From the beginning, and at every step along the way, as Americans sought the right to vote, others have fought to stop them.
Today, at a time of demographic change, the backlash to a multiracial democracy has intensified. Waldman shows how Trump and his followers no longer rely on the “dog whistle” hints of recent years. In the aftermath of the 2020 election, Trump and his backers filed dozens of lawsuits demanding that the results be overturned, and votes thrown out, in Detroit, Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Milwaukee — all cities with heavily Black and Latino electorates.
“One thing we know. We will continue to struggle, at times to brawl, over who can wield power and how wide to draw the circle of participation. Whatever happens, the fight for American democracy — the fight to vote — will go on,” Waldman writes.
Among the “turning points” Waldman describes:
At the time of the Constitution, only white male property owners could vote. There were strong advocates for universal (white, male) suffrage, and others who were vehement about keeping the vote in the hands of the wealthy. Ben Franklin, by then 81 and deeply revered, led the push for the popular vote. John Adams, on the other hand, argued if men without property were allowed to vote, “there would be no end to it.” James Madison focused on what he saw as a bigger threat: that state legislators would try to manipulate voting rules. He wrote into the Constitution a controversial provision that gives the federal government the power to step in to override policies that tilt the vote. Madison warned, “It was impossible to foresee all the abuses.”
Over two centuries Americans fought over expanding the franchise. The first voting rights victory, ironically given today’s politics, was won by angry white working-class men, in the era of Andrew Jackson. The next great fight came after the Civil War, after Abraham Lincoln reversed his stance on the black male vote. During the 1850s he opposed equal suffrage, but began to change during heightened tension between the north and south. Waldman quotes his first speech on equal voting rights: “What I do say is, that no man is good enough to govern another man, without the other’s consent.” By the end of the Civil War, Lincoln went public. Two days before Lincoln’s assassination, John Wilkes Booth heard the president speak about equal voting rights and declared, “That is the last speech he will ever give!”
The Fifteenth Amendment guaranteed the right to vote regardless of race. Waldman tells the surprising political story behind the Amendment. It was enacted by the new Republican Party as a way to preserve election victories that relied on black votes. The measure was too weak. But it gave Congress the power to enforce state voting rights. The U.S. Army could now guard polling locations in the south, ushering in a brief heyday in which black voter turnout neared 90%. This would end with the eventual removal of the troops. By the 1890s and the early 20th Century, black voting rights were almost entirely repealed in the South.
The Twentieth Century
Americans in the Twentieth Century faced rapidly changing demographics and election rules. By the 1920s, thirteen northern states required literacy tests to vote, in large part due to fear of immigrant influence. Violence, intimidation, and poll taxes were rampant in the south. Voter turnout dropped from 79% to 49%. Southerners had consolidated most of the power in Congress by electing the same candidates repeatedly so they’d become the most senior Representatives and given more authority. On top of that, states refused to redraw electoral districts after new censuses, ignoring urban population surges due to immigration and allotting greater comparative electoral power to small towns. Waldman calls this “the silent gerrymander.”
- Particularly interesting to the modern reader is the question of campaign finance. The first law on the topic was enacted in 1907, after newspapers reported that a huge amount of New York Life Insurance money had been discreetly transferred to the Roosevelt campaign by J.P. Morgan’s own righthand man. The Tillman Act is still cited by those seeking to combat wealthy campaign backers. The Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution gave the right to vote for U.S. Senate, in another bid to combat campaign finance abuses. To Progressive Era Americans, the vote could counter big money.
- Finally, in 1919, the 19th Amendment passed. Women could vote. Waldman tells us about the mostly forgotten leader of the movement, Alice Paul, and a young lawyer who led a march on Washington dressed as Greek goddess and riding a white horse. The march attracted mobs of angry men who assaulted the women, sending a hundred women to the hospital. The news startled the nation and garnered more sympathy for the movement than ever before.
- Waldman also describes in moving detail the march from Selma to Montgomery, illuminating little known details and offering a unique perspective on the story that has received more attention since the major motion picture Selma. The relationship between LBJ and MLK was highly nuanced, and LBJ actually drafted the Voting Rights Act without telling Martin Luther King, while MLK organized the famous march without notifying Johnson. The resulting law vitally required federal Justice Department approval for states to change their voting laws.
The battle over voting erupted again in the 21st Century. It began with the Florida recount in 2000. “Florida’s election system had rotted as if touched by the state’s humidity: at every level it was rife with error and prone to abuse,” Waldman writes. Partisans began to push for new restrictions on voting, claiming widespread fraud. Those fraud claims are nonsense, Waldman notes; you are more likely to be struck by lightning than to commit in person voter impersonation, for example.
In a now-forgotten scandal, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was forced to resign in 2007 after he fired prosecutors who refused to bring bogus charges of voter fraud.
The Supreme Court, in a series of 5–4 rulings, gutted campaign finance law in Citizens United and the Voting Rights Act in 2013’s Shelby County — and refused to step in to police partisan gerrymandering, which rigs election district lines.
Today’s Fight to Vote
All of which leads to the extraordinary, unsettling story of the past few years. Voter turnout had plunged in 2014 to the lowest level in 72 years. But the astounding election of Donald Trump changed that. In 2018, turnout soared to the highest level in a century. The 2020 election showed a changing country, as an electorate dominated by women and voters of color elected the first woman, first Black person, and first Asian as vice president — and only the second Catholic as president. As in earlier eras, demographic change spurred a fierce backlash. The 2020 census found that the white population actually fell in number.
But Waldman describes President Biden’s halting leadership in the fight to protect voting rights. He recounts a speech in Philadelphia in the summer of 2021, where “rhetorically Biden raised the stakes sky high. ‘I’ve said it before: We are facing the most significant test of our democracy since the Civil War.’” But Waldman noted, in an anecdote not previously reported, “Shortly before Biden walked out to speak, amplifiers blared a soundtrack of classic rock. On came “We Won’t Get Fooled Again,” the 1971 song by The Who about dashed revolutionary hopes. (Meet the new boss / Same as the old boss.)”
In an interview, Waldman can discuss:
- How today’s fight over democracy compares with other moments in our history.
- How Congress has fought earlier battles over voting rights, including the Voting Rights Act, legislation to ban the poll tax, and fights over the vote for women.
- How Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 election broke with two centuries of American history — and how it echoes earlier eras of backlash against immigrants and Black voters.
- How American democracy itself will be on the ballot in coming years, as Republicans embrace Trump’s Big Lie, and politicians like Stacey Abrams make the fight for voting rights central to their political strategy
- How the new right-wing “supermajority” on the Supreme Court will further endanger voting rights
- What the real story is about “voter fraud” (which will surprise both those on the left and the right).
- The colorful stories of those who led the fight for voting rights — some well-known (such as Benjamin Franklin or Martin Luther King) and some largely forgotten (such as Alice Paul and the young activists who won the right to vote for women). And those who fought to stop them (such as John Wilkes Booth).
- What the Founders really thought, and how the words of the Declaration of Independence and the ideas behind the Constitution set in motion a drive for democracy
About the Author
Michael Waldman is president of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, a nonpartisan law and policy institute that focuses on improving the systems of democracy and justice. He was director of speechwriting for President Bill Clinton from 1995 to 1999 and is the author of The Second Amendment, My Fellow Americans, POTUS Speaks, and three other books. He was a member of the Presidential Commission on the Supreme Court of the United States. Waldman is a graduate of Columbia College and NYU School of Law. He comments widely in the media on law and policy.
About the Book
THE FIGHT TO VOTE
By Michael Waldman
Simon & Schuster
Publication date: January 18, 2022; Price: $20.00
THE FIGHT TO VOTE is available online HERE
Acclaim for THE FIGHT TO VOTE
“Important and engaging” — Washington Post
“The book is an engaging, concise history of American voting practices, and despite a heavily partisan treatment of today’s ‘voting wars,’ it offers many useful reforms that advocates on both sides of the aisle should consider.” — Wall Street Journal
“Waldman draws a clear picture full of amusing anecdotes of voting and voting rights over the past 228 years. He demonstrates how the political establishment, fearing change, usually has been behind the people on this question.” — Buffalo News
“[An] important book…Waldman’s bracing account of voting rights and political equality arrives right on time for the 2016 presidential campaign.” — Booklist, Starred Review
“Using a wealth of solid historical scholarship and political biography, Waldman’s work makes the contemporary issues concerning the right to vote accessible to the average American.” — Library Journal
“A compelling—and disheartening—history of voting in America… Waldman urges citizens to find a way to celebrate democracy and reinvigorate political engagement for all. A timely contribution to the discussion of a crucial issue.” — Kirkus Reviews
“With the Voting Rights Act under threat, it’s good to have a book that clarifies how tough getting—and keeping—that right has sometimes been.” — Library Journal
“Michael Waldman’s masterly history reminds us that ‘We the People’ can and must restore our experiment in Constitutional freedom.” — Taylor Branch, author of America in the King Years
“The Fight to Vote is an important and powerful reminder that we forget American history at our peril: that democracy was hard-won and that with the right to vote once again under attack, it’s ours to lose.” — Linda Greenhouse, Knight Distinguished Journalist in Residence and Joseph Goldstein Lecturer in Law at Yale Law School
“Through this book, Michael Waldman delivers a message every American needs to hear. The struggle for the right to vote is not over. It is still being waged even today. We must use it or we can lose it.” — the late Congressman John Lewis