by Guy-Uriel E. Charles, Heather K. Gerken, and Michael S. Kang (eds). New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. 312pp. Cloth: $90.00. ISBN: 9781107001671.
Reviewed by Thomas Shevory, Department of Politics, Ithaca College.
Race, Reform, and Regulation in the Electoral Process offers an edited collection of articles on different aspects of voting systems, with particular emphasis on their interconnections with the politics of race. The authors are a mix of law professors and political scientists, including many highly respected scholars in the field. The diversity of the authors and range of approaches is one of the great strengths of this collection. It provides a comprehensive introduction to cutting edge scholarship on issues ranging from the Voting Rights Act to voters’ perceptions of the reapportionment process. Some of the authors have recommendations to policy-makers, lawyers, and judges. Others focus more intensively on the study of voting systems as an academic specialty. Policy-makers involved with voting reform would be wise to read this text, as it is chocked full of insights on strategies for and implications of voting reform measures. The potential weakness of any edited collection is that it will tend towards disparate and fragmented analysis. In this case, however, the editors have done an exceptional job of organizing the material coherently. Some highlights include the following:
At the start, Jennifer Hoschild surveys some the recent controversies in the field, and then the discussion moves to a lively exchange between Richard Pildes and Pamela Karlan on continued relevance of the Voting Rights Act. Pildes argues that section 5 of the Act is under challenge from recent Supreme Court decisions, and will likely have to be narrowed in the future. Given this prospect, Congress should focus its energy on protecting and expanding a more general or universal right to vote. Karlan agrees that scholars should “develop a more affirmative vision of the right to vote” (p.35), but contends they should also confront the constitutional challenges, focussing on the Act as “ordinary” legislation that deserves judicial deference.
Vincent Hutchings, et al., take on the ambitious project of attempting to explain sources of inter group conflict. They draw upon “group position theory” to explain conflicts between various minority groups in American society. They tested the theory via the National Politics Study, an ambitious survey project that garnered more than three thousand interviews. While the findings are too complex to give an adequate summary here, suffice to say that they found the “group position theory” to have the greatest explanatory value of the four theories that they tested. In other words, “individuals who felt their racial and ethnic group had been alienated by society should feel most threatened by the economic and political success of other groups” (p.70).[*657]
The Voting Rights Act is only, however, one of the many topics covered in the collection. A number of the authors deal implicitly or explicitly with institutional mechanisms for reforming elections processes. Heather Gerken and Michael Kang, for example, propose "hard" and "soft" approaches to elections law reform. Hard reforms involve measures such as direct voter approval of redistricting plans. But softer approaches can also be effective. Gerken’s Democracy Index, for example, can be used to rate states and municipalities in terms of how well their elections systems work. How long did voters stand in line? Did the machines work properly? Various “shadow institutions” can also be useful, including those that might develop alternative redistricting plans against which actual state proposals could be measured.
Richard Hasen surveys recent controversies regarding judicial intervention into voting processes and questions the legitimacy of judges as nonpolitical actors. Evidence suggests that judges are influenced by ideological predispositions, if not outright partisan commitments, in many cases. He proposes clearer legislative drafting as a way to avoid the necessity for judicial intervention. He remains somewhat skeptical about institutional design changes such as the Democracy Index. In Hasen’s view, rather than trying to reform or monitor judges with the eye towards making them neutral, we should limit their interventions into the process when possible.
Christopher Elmendorf takes on the question of how the notion of “positive legitimacy” has been marshaled by the Supreme Court in defense of numerous voting rights and voting reform cases. The Court has either implicitly, or in some cases, explicitly, justified its actions as in defense of the perceived need to keep voting systems legitimate in the eyes of the public. These justifications have mostly been made on the basis of conjecture. Elmendorf surveys the political science literature to test these conjectures and reveals a complicated tapestry of findings. He notes, for example, that there is little evidence for the link between campaign financing rules and public perceptions of legitimacy, and some evidence of a link between voter fraud and perceptions of legitimacy. The most important variable determining voters' sense of system legitimacy is the voting experience itself.
Joshua Fougere, Stephen Ansolabehere, and Nathaniel Persily’s chapter also considers the relationship of public opinion to the electoral reform process. They are primarily interested in the public’s views on systems for redistricting. Unsurprisingly, they find that most people have very little idea how redistricting takes place in their states. At the same time, however, there do seem to be connections between race, ethnicity, and views of the legitimacy of the process. African-Americans and Latinos tend to be quite skeptical about redistricting efforts, while whites are somewhat less skeptical. Those in the “out party,” as one might expect, are less accepting of redistricting than members of the party in power. Across-the-board, it seems that the public favors some kind of independent commission to draw district lines.
Alan Gerber takes a unique approach to studying the impacts of various techniques of voter mobilization by essentially field testing them in an experimental fashion. Most information [*658] about mobilization, as he notes, has to this point been drawn through surveys. He finds that social norms can be very influential in encouraging individuals to vote. The sense that others know that you either are or are not voting can be powerful. So, for example, individuals receiving a mailing that suggested their act of voting was being monitored were more likely to vote than a control group.
Archon Fong looks at the impact of elections monitoring activities to see whether they might be an effective mechanism for tracking the efficacy and honesty of elections boards across the U.S. Under these systems, individuals can register and the report on their experiences at their polling place. This seems like a relatively costless way to check the efficacy of the polling process. Participation is of course key, and here Fong finds a mixed record, with the CNN Voter Hotline as one of the most used, receiving over 96,000 reports in the 2008 election.
Samuel Isaacharoff expands the book’s analysis into international contexts, examining the role that constitutional courts have played in the electoral practices of emerging democracies. He finds that courts often take a prominent role in attempting to shape the evolution of new democratic systems. Considering cases as disparate as South Africa and Mongolia, he finds a highly mixed record of success. Courts may seem necessary, but their actual impacts, in the end, may be marginal.
In the end, underlying all of these arguments about elections law, politics, and reform, is a set of assumptions about the value and role of voters in democratic political systems. Larger and long-running questions about whether “more democracy is better” often seem to be assumed. In his conclusion, Brace Cain questions majoritarian assumptions and makes the case for a “restrained democracy,” which he finds consistent with a Madisonian perspective (but which he distinguishes from pluralism). While he finds positive aspects to the “new institutionalism” favored by many of the book’s contributors, he also wants scholars of voting reform to consider the possibility that more democracy might not always be the better path. Restrained democracy, in his view, “maintains a judicious skepticism about public opinion and provides for institutional mechanisms to encourage deeper public deliberation before action, especially for decisions with long-term implications and consequences” (p.275).
The primary audience for this book is scholars of voting reform, for whom, I would say, the book is a necessity. It is probably somewhat technical and advanced for undergraduate students, but could be read with benefit by law professors, lawyers, political scientists, sociologists, and historians with an interest in voting systems, how they are evolving, and what cutting edge scholars are thinking about them.
© Copyright 2011 by the author, Thomas Shevory