Uncounted: The Crisis of Voter Suppression in America, Gilda R. Daniels
This book offers a top-notch exploration of several tactics that have long been used to suppress voting rights in the United States. Drawing on Gilda R. Daniels’s extensive firsthand knowledge and laudable career as a civil rights attorney, as well as her work with a prominent civil rights organization and in the U.S. Department of Justice, Uncounted presents a timely and informed call to action. Throughout the book, her formal expertise is balanced with the inclusion of personal anecdotes and colloquialisms. By weaving together both professional and personal experiences, the book has a tone that is approachable while also offering the reader a rich introduction to many of the restrictive voting laws that have disproportionately impacted people of color.
The book’s most striking contribution to our understanding of voter suppression resides is in its careful attention to history: that we can, and must, use the past to inform our understanding of the present. Akin to Jacquelyn Dowd Hall’s portrayal of a long civil rights movement that did not begin, or end, neatly in the mid-1960s, Daniels urges her readers to “recognize the significance of history” (p. 9). The seriousness with which she employs a historical grounding allows Daniels to make explicit connections between what she describes as “new-millennium methods” of discrimination and their historical predecessors, noting that the name may have changed, but “the impact remains the same, that is, the disenfranchisement of voters of color” (p. 23). This relationship between the present and the past is highlighted throughout each chapter’s case study of a current method of voter suppression (for example, the assault of the 2013 Shelby ruling on the Voting Rights Act, voter identification laws, voter deception, etc.). It is an approach that successfully demonstrates that the United States has often moved forward and backward with respect to voting rights, that restrictive laws in any manifestation are effective at disenfranchising, and that these mechanisms are frequently veiled in unfounded concerns about voter fraud.
Throughout the book, the examination of, and proposed remedies for, these prominent suppressive tactics is mostly done in relation to the federal government. In taking this approach, the immense power given to the states over voting rights—thanks to American federalism—is underemphasized. As such, readers who are well versed in the extensive scholarly literature on state electoral laws and political participation might be frustrated by the book’s lack of grounding in, or reference to, previous studies. Indeed, most argue that the power of the states in designing, or changing, the rules of the game helps explain the why or how in discussions of vote suppression—since, in fact, the evolution of voting rights in the United States is rooted in debates about state versus federal power. Further, although the racial ramifications of voter suppression are appropriately the centerpiece of the book, more could have been done to highlight the partisan aspects of the subject as well as its connection to economic inequality.
Overall, Uncounted forcefully and methodically dispels any belief that, as Chief Justice John Roberts suggested, “voting discrimination is mainly a thing of the past” (p. 53). It does so in a remarkably hopeful manner. As a champion of action, Daniels reminds the reader that by learning about, and identifying, patterns of voter suppression, we can each take action to curb them; that there are paths forward. This is a welcome and much-needed sentiment as public conversations about the fundamental link between voting rights and democracy, about public deception and political trust, about the risks one might take to participate, and about the deep-seeded racism in the political system are undeniably urgent once again.
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