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Ballot Blocked: The Political Erosion of the Voting Rights Act

Jesse H. Rhodes' Ballot Blocked: The Political Erosion of the Voting Rights Act gives readers a behind-the-scenes view of the history and future of the Voting Rights Act. The 1965 Act was signed into law by President Johnson, following the calls of activists in the Civil Rights movement. The legislation came in the wake of civil rights demonstrations from Selma to Montgomery, aimed at calling attention to the desire of African-American citizens to exercise their constitutional right to vote. The Voting Rights Act (PL. 89-110) soon became a landmark federal achievement of the civil rights movement.

The Act contains both general and special provisions. For general application, Section 2 prohibits any jurisdiction from implementing a "voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure ... in a manner which results in a denial or abridgment of the right ... to vote on account of race," color, or language, or minority status. Section 5 also included a formula that required "preclearance," or federal authorization before certain jurisdictions could implement changes to their voting laws. Jurisdictions subject to this preclearance largely included those in the Deep South with a history of racial discrimination in voting.

The Act was rocked in 2013, when the Supreme Court announced its decision in Shelby County v. Holder (570 U.S. 529). The ruling overturned the coverage formula long used to identify those jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination in voting. Without these jurisdictions submitting to preclearance before changing election rules, the ability to make more stringent, and possibly discriminatory rules has become far more simple.

Rhodes central argument is that throughout the history of the Act, while its provisions have received widespread bipartisan support in Congress, who has reauthorized  the Act repeatedly, Republican law makers do so out of a "cynical desire to better position themselves for electoral success." At the same, Rhodes argues that Republican lawmakers instead have chosen to weaken the act's ability to effectively eradicate discriminatory voting laws through championing esoteric administrative rules and exploiting "obscure bureaucratic procedures to limit implementation without running the risk of adverse public scrutiny."

In the book's chapters, Rhodes takes a detailed look at the history of the Act and the steps to its implementation before turning to how the Act has been eroded in later decades. By looking through the political, historical, and legislative record of the act and its implementation, Rhodes makes a strong case for his argument: that by maintaining a public  appearance of supporting voter equality, Republican coalitions have actively worked to limit voting rights enforcement through less public government institutions. Rhodes tells a compelling story of American history that deserves the attention of legal scholars. 


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