Alexander Keyssar, The Right To Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States (Basic Books, 2000). Keyssar’s comprehensive survey of the highly contested, always evolving process by which Americans not only choose who can vote but also how we organize the ways in which voters cast ballots (and then how those ballots are counted), is the “gold standard” for voting rights books. If I had to pick a single book on voting rights to recommend to someone new to the topic, it would be Keyssar’s book.
Charles l. Zelden, Voting Rights on Trial (Hackett, 2004 [PB]): For those seeking a more concise overview than Keyssar’s fine book, with more focus on the role of litigation in shaping the right to vote, this distilled treatment provides a useful guide, with supplementary documents, through 2004.Readers, do you have other suggestions? Join the conversation by posting a comment.
Charles Zelden (credit)
Stephen F. Lawson, Black Ballots: Voting Rights in the South, 1944-1969 (Columbia U. Press, 1976 [HB]; Lexington Press, 1999 [PB]). Lawson’s book is a highly readable and informative account of the decades-long fight for African American voting rights in the South. Although later work on this subject has added nuance and scope to our understandings of the fight against African American disfranchisement in the South (in particular, exploring the grassroots origins of the fight for voting rights within the southern black community), Lawson’s book still stands as one of the best descriptions of the organized fight to break the back of racial disfranchisement.
R. Volney Riser, Defying Disfranchisement: Black Voting Rights Activism in the Jim Crow South, 1890-1908 (LSU Press, 2010). Riser offers a fascinating look at the earliest stages of the fight against African American disenfranchisement. His book reminds us that the defense of African American voting rights arose contemporaneously with Southern whites’ efforts to impose disfranchisement on Southern blacks. That these efforts to defend black voting rights failed did not make then any less important.
Christopher Malone, Between Freedom and Bondage: Race, Party and Voting Rights in the Antebellum North (Routledge, 2008). Focusing on African American voting rights in the antebellum North, Malone provides a useful counterbalance to the mostly south-centric work on African American voting rights and to the tendency to focus the study of the fight for African American voting rights on the twentieth century.
Charles L. Zelden, The Battle for the Black Ballot: Smith v. Allwright and the Defeat of the Texas All-White Primary (U. Press of Kansas, 2005 [HC/PB]). A volume in the “Landmark Law Cases and American Society” series examining the 1944 case that Thurgood Marshall prized even above Brown v. Board of Education.
Richard C. Cortner, The Apportionment Cases (W. W. Norton & Co., 1970). Though badly dated, Cortner’s book is still the best one-volume history of the reapportionment revolution of the 1960s, providing a compelling narrative of the legal fight for and against the “one person, one vote” standard in apportioning legislative seats.
Charles L. Zelden, Bush v. Gore: Exposing the Hidden Crisis in American Democracy (U. Press of Kansas, 2008 [HB]; abridged and updated, 2010 [PB]). The first book to treat the legal/constitutional crisis of the post-2000 presidential election as history (as opposed to adding to the mountain of constitutional and political commentary on the case). This book shifts the debate over what happened in 2000 (and over the Supreme Court’s ruling) away from the endless political argument about who became president and how to the electoral and structural issues raised by this event. In summary, the 2000 election exposed many serious practical and administrative flaws afflicting our electoral system – in particular, its vulnerability to the sorts of partisan manipulation that we are seeing today. A subtheme of the revised edition is that at the time of the crisis, and to this day, nobody was willing to acknowledge these flaws (except, that is, for partisans who saw in them opportunities for electoral advantage). The failure to learn the true lessons of 2000 – that we had a broken electoral system -- set the stage for the electoral manipulations and administrative failures that are emerging as prominent problems afflicting this election cycle.
Richard L. Hasen, The Voting Wars: From Florida 2000 to the Next Election Meltdown (Yale Univ. Press, 2012). Hasen’s book explores the fallout of the failure to correct the electoral flaws exposed by the 2000 post-election meltdown in Florida in the years since 2000. Engagingly written, full of details as to the choices made (or not made) that have undermined the effectiveness of modern electoral administration, The Voting Wars makes clear how and why our electoral system has ended up in the mess now besetting it. If you want to understand why the results from Ohio and Florida may not be known for weeks (assuming the vote is close today) Hasen’s book is the place to start.