Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder discusses voting rights

Eric Holder, 82n/a The United States Attorney General, was recently interviewed by Margaret Huang, President and CEO of the Southern Poverty Law Center, to discuss her book, Our unfinished march, a timely critique of American politics, the state of democracy in the United States, and the right to vote. The interview took place shortly before the midterm elections.

Holder served as attorney general in the Obama administration and was the first black to hold that position. He is now chairman of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee – an organization similar to the SPLC that fights to end racial and partisan gerrymandering and protect the right to vote for all Americans.

Holder’s new book, co-authored with New York Times best-selling author Sam Koppelman, was released in May. The book details the brutal, bloody, and sometimes hopeful history of suffrage. Our unfinished march identifies opponents who fight to take away the right to vote and can be considered a manual to save our democracy before it is too late.

The book also details the violent past and threatened future of voting and tells deeply compelling stories from the harsh but hopeful history of voting in the United States.

The book includes anecdotes from Holder’s frontline accounts of those who fight against undemocratic forces that seek to suppress this fundamental right.

Filled with extraordinary history, rigorous analysis and action plans for the future, the book offers a powerful reminder of what is at stake regarding the urgent political struggle of one of the leading defenders of the right to vote and fair elections in the country.

The United States is a fragile democracy, Holder argues, whose citizens have had unrestricted access to the ballot only since the 1960s. Holder takes readers through three dramatic stories of how the vote was won: d first by white men, through violence and insurrection; then by white women, through mass protests and imprisonments; and finally by African Americans, in the face of lynchings, terrorism and extreme abuse.

holder ends Our unfinished march with creative chapters on how we can reverse this tide of voter suppression and become a true democracy where every voice is heard and every vote is counted.

In this exclusive Q&A, Holder reveals the impetus behind writing the book and what readers can expect to learn. Holder and Huang also discuss the potential decline of American democracy in 2022, and why voting is of the utmost importance in keeping our democracy intact.

Huang: Well, the book is wonderful, so thank you. I found it to be a really easy and compelling read.

Incumbent: That’s really good to hear. I want this book to be accessible and not Vote for Dummies or something like that. I wanted to write something that would be accessible in the first two chapters.

Huang: Absolutely. I must tell you, however, that I was really saddened that you had to add the chapter explaining why democracy is important. It seemed very revealing and very depressing. Frankly, we had to assume that maybe we’re not all on the same page on this.

Incumbent: Yeah, it was quite interesting, because the book and the manuscript were already done. And then we said, “You know, what we really need to do is advocate for democracy,” and that was kind of sad in some ways. One of the things that I think we need to remind people is that democracy is something that when it’s good, it’s worth fighting for, you know?

Huang: Absolutely. Democracy is in decline. No one is claiming that is not the case. But also, what are the implications of this on a global scale? Because for a long time, criticism of the United States has been numerous. But it was not about the democracy aspect, but about other foreign policy objectives.

Incumbent: It’s always interesting for me to go abroad and talk to people to see what people in other countries know about our electoral system or our politics. What happens in the United States is therefore important. This is why the SPLC is so important.

Huang: One of our biggest challenges is that we see more and more obstacles in the justice system. So we have to be strategic about our next moves. It may not be in court; it may have to be in community mobilization on the ground in our states, because we lose a lot in the courts, and we fight a lot of cases in each of our [SPLC focus] States around the redistricting process.

Incumbent: If you look at success [in voting rights cases] we’ve had in the federal system at the district court level and at the appeals level, the only court we have trouble with is the Supreme Court of the United States.

Houang: Yes, and the book resonates with so many of us as we continue the long and hard work of protecting the basic right to vote. You describe the United States as a fragile and nascent democracy, whose citizens have only had full access to the ballot since the 1960s.

Incumbent: I think it’s an interesting story. It sort of goes back to the history of getting the right to vote, and I think a lot of people were surprised when they read that the first group of people to try to get access to the vote were white males . This is something that I felt was important, not only for understanding our history, but also for giving us a sense of hope today, as we try to imagine an America that, in fact, has no never really existed as a truly functioning multiracial democracy.

Huang: Thank you, Eric. I want to ask a question about electoral fraud. According to the Brennan Center, in a recent survey they said there was a higher chance of being struck by lightning than someone committing voter fraud in person. So why does this voter fraud narrative persist? Why do we hear so many reports and disputes about voter fraud when in fact it is a completely non-existent problem?

Incumbent: That’s a very good question. And we talk about it in the book. People don’t necessarily see the evidence of it, but because they’ve heard a lot about it, they tend to think there must be something. But that’s totally inconsistent with the facts and yet it’s something that has seeped into the consciousness of a lot of people in this country, and certainly enough people that in these gerrymandered districts Republicans have the ability to implement these truly unnecessary and often draconian anti-democratic initiatives. This is neither acceptable nor sufficient.

Houang: You talk a lot about hope for our country, and you find sources of hope through the different stories you share in the book. What is your advice for all of us today about what we, as citizens of this country, can do to protect our democracy? What are some of the things in the book, or your other experiences over the past few years, that continue to give you hope?

Incumbent: I think the book is a pretty optimistic book, because my optimism comes from the fact that previous generations of Americans faced challenges in their day and were able to overcome those challenges. I don’t think this generation of Americans will fail where others have succeeded. Dr. King said that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. And so, what I urge everyone to think about is what you can do to get your hands on that bow and pull it to justice. Our nation has moved away from that, and we don’t understand that we have an obligation as citizens of this country. As a citizen, I have responsibilities, and that means being involved in the civic life of the nation and being part of organizations and supporting other organizations, like the SPLC.

Houang: Thanks, Eric. It has been a real honor and pleasure for me.

Pictured above: SPLC President and CEO Margaret Huang, left, and former US Attorney General Eric Holder, right.