Review of “What’s the Big Deal About Elections” by Ruby Shamir

This book for older children begins by noting that almost everyone in the U.S. can vote once they turn eighteen, and asking, “Why does that matter? What’s the big deal about elections anyway?”

The main text is mostly in a question and answer format, with small text boxes on each page supplementing the information given in the main portion of the page. For example, one page asks “Why does government matter?” The book describes some of the government’s functions, such as building roads, schools, and parks, and keeping water and food safe. A text box talks about garbage collection, and what life was like in cities before departments of sanitation were established. In New York, for instance, “the city was so stinky that travelers could smell it from six miles away!”

In the section, “”Who votes?” A rosy picture is painted of the current status of voting rights. Voter suppression is mentioned only as a thing of the past.

There is no mention whatsoever of the following important and increasingly salient issues:

Racial and partisan gerrymandering – the act of politicians manipulating the redrawing of legislative district lines in order to help their friends and hurt their enemies – has been an ongoing problem in the country. (In fact, the word was coined by a writer in the Boston Gazette in 1812 in reaction to a redrawing of Massachusetts state senate election districts under Governor Elbridge Gerry.)

Voter ID laws, part of a strategy to roll back decades of progress on voting rights, are depriving many Americans of the right to vote. [11% of U.S. citizens – or more than 21 million Americans – do not have government-issued photo identification. Obtaining ID Costs Money. Even if ID is offered for free, voters must incur numerous costs (such as paying for birth certificates) to apply for a government-issued ID.]

Voter purges, the often-flawed process of cleaning up voter rolls by deleting names from registration lists, and frequently used by Republicans, receive no mention. When done incorrectly, purges disenfranchise legitimate voters (often when it is too close to an election to rectify the mistake), causing confusion and delay at the polls.

Class barriers are not insignificant. In 2012, for example, more than 80 percent of Americans with an annual income over $150,000 turned out to vote, compared with less than half of people earning under $20,000. As the New York Times explains:

“They aren’t negligent: People who are paid hourly or juggle multiple jobs can’t afford to miss work and stand in long lines to vote. And this group includes a large number of racial minorities — precisely the people that the civil rights movement was undertaken to help.”

Closing polling places is another technique used to suppress voting by minorities, who tend to vote for the Democratic party. On Election Day in 2016, there were 868 fewer polling places in states with a long history of voting discrimination, like Arizona, Texas, and North Carolina. These changes impacted hundreds of thousands of mostly would-be-Democratic voters, who did not have either the time off of work or transportation to enable them to get to open polls.

Allegations of voter fraud, while having been debunked, also contribute to efforts by by the Republican Party to justify restrictions on the right to vote.

As The Washington Post writes, “voter suppression is a crucial story in America.

The book also explains what happens in Washington, D.C. (with the author resisting the temptation to say “nothing”) and offers only an inadequate explanation of the thorny Electoral College problem. Just saying it is “baffling” seems less than satisfactory for such an important part of the voting system. She also does not explain the ways in which it has become very non-representational. Certainly many children will be aware that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote for president in 2016 by more than 2 million votes, but lost the vote in the Electoral College to Donald Trump by 306 to 232, and therefore he won the presidency. That seems like a very important situation to clarify.

As US News and World Report explains:

“If the president were elected by popular vote, every voter’s ballot would have been given equal weight, or influence, over the outcome, and Hillary Clinton would have won. But, as evidenced by Donald Trump’s victory, the Electoral College gives different weights to votes cast in different states.”

For example, individual votes from Wyoming carry 3.6 times more influence, or weight, than those from California. California, as the Washington Post observes, is home to 12 percent of Americans, but holds only 10 percent of electoral votes. A similar pattern repeats in the country’s largest states.

Shouldn’t kids understand how this works? Would this not be a great subject for discussion, as it would stimulate thinking about fairness, historical precedents, and possible solutions?

The author also avers that any citizen can run for office, but elides over the role affluence plays in that determination. She states, “Elections are also about making sure the country is safe, prosperous, and fair well into the future.” That’s a bit of a misstatement, especially to the extent that winning elections is greatly influenced both by outright donations and by “dark money” which in turn ensures that those elected will work to perpetuate the income inequality that helped them gain power. (See, for example, our review of the expose Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Mayer.)

Thus billionaires help elect officials who will push the agendas of the rich, and influence legislation to benefit their interests. After this last election, they were rewarded by a huge tax cut that benefitted the wealthy to the detriment of the poor and middle class. One wealthy donor, for example, gave $30 million to help elect Republicans in the 2016 election. He reaped a nearly $700 million windfall from the new tax law they then passed. These rich donors ponied up again for the 2018 election.

To make matters worse, after the tax bill passed, Republican leaders of Congress began calling for cuts to social security, medicare, and medicaid (which mostly benefit those with less money) to help offset the tax cuts for the rich. The relationship between money and Congress and the Presidency is so critical and so tied to policy initiatives, or the lack thereof, (consider, for example, the influence of a major lobbyist, the National Rifle Association), that it is unconscionable not to include any information about the interrelationship, or its moral considerations.

NRA donations to members of Congress

What about the effects of social media and foreign interference? Surely kids, many of whom have their own phones, should be apprised of the basics of evaluating information as well as the basics of how things work in theory.

The back matter includes a timeline that mostly highlights advances in the history of suffrage, and a list of sources for further reading.

Goauche Illustrations by Matt Faulkner are done in an appealing and colorful comic book style.

Evaluation: I am opposed to telling kids – especially older kids – fairy tales, especially if it prevents the development of their compassion, their ability to analyze and question authority, and their willingness to work for a better world. The age range for whom this book is intended, 7 and up, is surely able to comprehend more complexity and nuance than is provided here.

Nevertheless, the book does a good job in establishing a foundation for further exploration. And it would make an excellent guide for teachers who want to demonstrate the importance of ascertaining what is not included in works of non-fiction, and how that affects perceptions of reality.

Rating: 3/5

Published by Philomel Books, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group, 2018

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