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« Momentum, by Allison Fine | Main | Brave New Ballot, by Aviel David Rubin »

Stealing Democracy, by Spencer Overton

By an everyday book reader
May 1, 2007

While politicians spew shallow sound bites that describe a "free" American people who govern themselves by selecting their representatives, in reality politicians from both parties maintain control by selecting particular voters.

How? Incumbent politicians maintain thousands of election practices and bureaucratic hurdles that determine who votes and how votes are counted - such as the location of election district boundaries, long lines at urban polling places, and English-only ballots.

Anyone concerned about flaws in our voting processes should read this book.

Stealing Democracy: The New Politics of Voter Suppression
by Spencer OvertonBook Picture

Softcover: 224 pages
ISBN: 9780393330939, 0393330931
W. W. Norton
November 2007

This book attacks the least-inspected area of our democracy: partisan control of the ballot box.

Spencer Overton uses real-life stories to show how these seemingly insignificant practices channel political power and determine policies on war, schools, clean air, and other issues that shape our lives. He exposes the pressure points in this Orwellian system and provides strategies toward restoring self-government, including removing redistricting power from self-interested partisans and renewing parts of the Voting Rights Act that expire in 2007. Its compelling case is vital to the future of our democracy.

Spencer Overton, a professor at George Washington University Law School, served on the Jimmy Carter/James Baker Commission on Federal Election Reform and was the Charles Hamilton Houston Fellow at Harvard Law School. He lives in Washington, DC.

"A thorough, brilliant and impartial assessment of continuing problems at the ballot box." -- Donna Brazile, Campaign Manager for Gore-Lieberman 2000

"With searing detail and the stories of real voters, [Overton] reveals a dirty little secret: our democratic system is crumbling and, with it, the legitimacy of our institutions." -- U.S. Congressman John Conyers

"This book is a must for every American who cares about the integrity of our electoral system." - Raul Yzaguirre, Past-President of National Council of La Raza

"The U.S. Constitution assigns most of the management of elections to the states, which, in turn, allow their two major parties to dictate voting terms. For Overton (George Washington Univ. Law Sch.), a member of the Carter-Baker Election Reform Commission of 2005, the patchwork quilt of 102 party organizations (the Democratic and Republican parties in each state plus the two national committees) has produced a nefarious collection of rules that has suppressed the votes of too many citizens, especially the poor and people of color. He argues that the voting system isn't fair, balanced, efficient, or predictable but is instead controlled by the partisan organizations to keep their own members in office; as in The Matrix, the powers-that-be have manipulated the public into believing that it is in control. While the film analogy may help the book appeal to younger readers, its hint of conspiracy theory lessens the legitimacy of Overton's argument. Furthermore, the organization of elections has been in the hands of the states and political parties since the early 19th century, an arrangement our federal courts have consistently upheld. Nonetheless, Overton's book offers clear and cogent insights into the problems of our voting system. A worthy purchase for all public and academic libraries and essential for any collection that holds the Carter-Baker Commission Report." - Library Journal

"Voting rights are under siege in America, declares the author, who proposes several sweeping remedies. With expertise honed while working for the National Voting Rights Institute and the Carter/Baker Election Reform Commission, Overton (Law/George Washington Univ.) explains how democracy can be subverted without citizens even noticing. Disenfranchisement does not always occur at the voting booth, he warns, providing cautionary tales about computer gerrymandering, partisan oversight of elections and systemic discrimination based on race, class, native language and criminal history. At every turn, Overton finds self-interested politicians maneuvering to cut deals, protect their jobs and tip the scales for their allies. Many readers will be sympathetic to reform after reviewing his litany of undemocratic incidents and self-incriminating remarks about rigging elections made by unwary politicos. Overton cites encouraging precedents for major electoral reform, from the intricate case law advancing African-Americans' voting rights to the constitutional amendments enfranchising women, minorities and draft-age Americans. (The 26th Amendment granted the right to vote to those as young as 18 after the Vietnam War.) But he also warns that some enemies of democracy are trying to co-opt reform to reduce voter turnout. Dissenting from the Election Reform Commission on which he served, he skewers new photo-ID requirements as unnecessary barriers to voting and instead advocates universal voter registration... Overton makes a compelling case that beneath the rhetorical flourishes, American democracy is governed by a flawed election system: often capricious, sometimes unjust and rarely understood by the general public. To change this, Americans will need energy, optimism and 'a mindset of resistance and independence.' An approachable and constructive work." - Kirkus Reviews

"Overton takes a wonky but worthy look at the 'matrix' of 'thousands of election regulations and practices' that can discourage-if not completely suppress-citizens from voting or make their votes count less. A law professor and election reform activist, Overton makes concrete proposals for restoring power to voters. Redistricting, he says, is often conducted in a partisan manner; Overton recommends that the United States assign the responsibility to an independent commission. He calls for federal standards for counting ballots and the provision of voting machines. The much-debated Voting Rights Act, Overton argues, remains vital, though those invoking it should more carefully analyze 'practices that disadvantage voters of color.' In answer to those bilingual education opponents who might withhold 'democracy from Americans with limited English skills,' he also argues that bilingual ballots would 'advance citizen engagement.' Overton warns that a photo ID requirement for voting would exclude those (e.g., the poor, many people of color) who don't have driver's licenses. Citing relatively low voter turnout and lack of centralized election oversight, the author notes how the United States 'deviates from democratic norms' of other established democracies, concluding with profiles of activists to inspire the citizens' movement needed to enact the sensible reforms he advocates." - Publishers Weekly

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