Skip to main content Accessibility

‘A Case for Democracy’: Former US Attorney General Eric Holder discusses right to vote, history of voting laws

Eric Holder, the 82nd U.S. attorney general, was recently interviewed by Southern Poverty Law Center President and CEO Margaret Huang to discuss his book, Our Unfinished March, a timely critique on American politics, the state of democracy in the U.S. and voting rights. The interview took place shortly before the midterm elections.

Holder served as attorney general during the Obama administration, and he was the first Black person to hold that office. Now he serves as the chair of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee – an organization much like the SPLC that is fighting to end racial and partisan gerrymandering and protect voting rights for all Americans.

Holder’s new book, co-written with New York Times bestselling author Sam Koppelman, was released in May. The book details the brutal, bloody and at times hopeful history of voting rights. Our Unfinished March identifies the opponents fighting to take away the right to vote and can be viewed as a playbook on saving our democracy before it’s too late.

The book also details the violent past and endangered future of the vote and recounts deeply compelling stories of the harsh and yet hopeful history of voting in the United States.

The book includes anecdotes from Holder’s frontline accounts of those battling the anti-democratic forces who are working to strip away this fundamental right.

Full of extraordinary history, rigorous analysis and actionable plans for the future, the book offers a powerful reminder of what’s at stake regarding the urgent political struggle from one of the country’s leading advocates for voting rights and fair elections.

The U.S. is a fragile democracy, Holder argues, whose citizens have only had unrestricted access to the ballot since the 1960s. Holder takes readers through three dramatic stories of how the vote was won: first by white men, through violence and insurrection; then by white women, through protests and mass 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 to keep our democracy intact.

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

Holder: That’s really good to hear. I want this book to be accessible and not Voting for Dummies or anything like that. I wanted to write something that would be accessible in the first couple of chapters.

Huang: Absolutely. I have to tell you, though, that I was really saddened that you had to add the chapter explaining why democracy is important. That seemed very telling and very depressing. Frankly, we had to start from a premise that maybe we’re not all on the same page on that.

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

Huang: Absolutely. Democracy is on the decline. Nobody is arguing that it’s not. But also, what are the implications of that globally? Because for a long time there were many critiques of the United States. But it wasn’t about the democracy aspect, but other foreign policy goals.

Holder: It’s always interesting for me to go overseas and talk to people to see how much people in other countries know about our electoral system or about our politics. So what happens in the United States matters. That’s why the SPLC is so important.

Huang: One of our biggest challenges is that we’re seeing increasing obstacles in the judicial system. So we’re having to be strategic about what our next moves are. It may not be in the courts; it may need to be in community mobilization on the ground in our states, because we’re losing a lot in the courts, and we’re fighting a lot of cases in each of our [SPLC focus] states around the voting redistricting process.

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

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

Holder: I think it’s an interesting tale. It kind of traces the history of the acquisition of the vote, and I think a lot of people have been surprised when they read that the first group of people to try to get access to the vote were white men. This was something that I thought was important, not only to understand our history, but also to give us a sense of hope in the present day, when we are trying to imagine an America that, in fact, has never really existed as a true multiracial, functioning democracy.

Huang: Thank you, Eric. I want to ask a question about voter fraud. According to the Brennan Center, in a recent investigation they have stated that there is a greater chance of being struck by lightning than someone committing in-person voter fraud. So, why is this narrative about voter fraud persisting? Why do we hear so many reports and challenges about voter fraud when it is, in fact, such a completely nonexistent problem?

Holder: That’s a really good question. And we talk about that in the book. People don’t necessarily see any proof of it, but because they’ve heard it a lot, they tend to think there must be something to it. But it’s totally inconsistent with the facts and yet is something that has seeped into the consciousness of many people in this country, and certainly enough people so that in these gerrymandered districts, Republicans have the ability to put in place these really unnecessary and oftentimes draconian anti-democracy initiatives. That’s not acceptable or adequate.

Huang: You talk a lot about hope for our country, and you find sources of hope throughout the various stories that you share in the book. What’s your advice for all of us today on what we, as citizens of this country, can do to protect our democracy? What are some of the things from the book, or from your other experiences in the last few years, that continue to give you hope?

Holder: 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 successfully overcame those challenges. I don’t think this generation of Americans will fail where others were successful. Dr. King said that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. And so what I would urge everybody to think about is what is it that you can do to put your hand on that arc and pull it towards justice. Our nation has gotten 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 a part of organizations and supporting other organizations, like the SPLC.

Huang: Thank you, Eric. This has been a true honor and a pleasure for me.

Pictured at top: SPLC President and CEO Margaret Huang, left, and former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, right.