The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States by Alexander Keyssar

            Alex Keyssar, the Matthew W. Sterling, Jr. Professor of History and Social Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, has written this excellent history of voting in the United States.

            Is the United States a democracy?  Yes, but after reading this book one would have to conclude a very weak one.  It took four wars to enfranchise blacks, and women were excluded for a century. 

            Keyssar shows that enfranchisement has not been a straight line, rather a history characterized by two steps forward and one step back.  This book clearly shows that democracy is more than casting votes at the ballot box.  Voter registration requirements can encourage or discourage voting, district boundary lines, ballot access rules, campaign finance systems all impact the quality of democracy.

            Furthermore, Keyssar shows that the idea of American exceptionalism, that the United States achieved widespread suffrage at an earlier stage than other nations is simply not true.  This is a good book for showing how far the United States has yet to travel to achieve real democracy; and even this book understates the case. But anyone seriously interested in politics should read this book, it will save her or him decades of misunderstanding how the American electoral system really works.

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Contact: Joshua Leinsdorf