Book Review: Ballot Battles

Ballot Battles:  The History Of Disputed Elections In The United States, by Edward B. Foley

There has been no shortage of disputed elections in the United States, and there are some predictable reasons for that.  For one, Americans have always had diverse political opinions from the beginning of our history.  For another, elections have always meant something.  Even in colonial days America’s elections have been consequential because of the importance of developing local consensus about behaviors involving self-defense and the problematic relationship with metropolitan Britain.  Such matters only became even more important with independence and the continuing need to build legitimacy in one’s government for desired actions as well as dealing with the problematic relationship between local elites and state governments as well as state elites and the federal government.  Likewise, the use of force and fraud has never been absent in American political history either down to the present day.  These elements have guaranteed that politics would be something fought over by Americans, and such fights have prompted a lot of books, some of which are hostile to different aspects of the political disagreements and contentions that we have and this book is certainly no different in that regard from a great many of those books.

This book is more than 300 pages long and is divided into twelve chapters.  After acknowledgements a prologue and introduction discuss the missing impartiality in our political system and the goal of understanding the past for the sake of a better future respectively.  The author then goes on to discuss the colonial era (1) as well as novelty of elections for chief executives in early American history (2).  There is then a discussion of the entrenchment of two party systems (3) that are closely divided as well as the way that votes are counted in times of crisis like 1876 (4).  After that there is a discussion of Haves vs. Tilden (5) as well as the guilded age and its competitive elections not unlike our own period (6).  Then there is a discussion of the missed opportunities of the progressive era (7) and then the tarnished ideal of American democracy at the middle of the 20th century (8).  Then there is the legacy of increased expectations of the 1960’s (9) and the emergence of intensified partisanship in the 80’s and 90’s (10).  After that there is a discussion of Florida’s 2000 election (11) and the demand for election fairness (12).  Then the book ends with a conclusion about the quest for a fair count and an appendix on overtime elections as well as notes and an index.

One thing this book does that is important is set contemporary disputes over elections in a context that demonstrates that these conflicts are by no means new.  We may be prone to think of American political corruption as a partisan problem but it is more a problem of the darkness within human hearts, the desire for power and the lack of willingness of accepting the verdict of the people, however that can best be determined.  Coercion is a major aspect of political life.  On the one hand, regimes need the legitimacy that comes from popular votes, but no one actually wants to be governed by the will of the people, so democracy must be managed somehow.  Either that means people that one does not want to regard and respect must be kept from voting or the votes themselves must be subverted through fraud, and it is little surprise that these elements should be found over and over again whether we are dealing with urban machines or rural election management, Landslide Lyndy or the contemporary issues of Bush vs. Gore and election mail fraud in Oregon.  Professional bureaucrats and technology are not going to cure the darkness inside the hearts of men and women who want power.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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