Former U.S. attorney general Eric Holder wishes he'd picked a different name for his new book.

“It says Our Unfinished March and I don’t want people to think that I’m just talking about African Americans. The our is really America, it’s America’s unfinished march,” Mr. Holder said.

Our Unfinished March, which was released in May, explores the long history of the battle for voting rights in America and gives recommendations on how to counteract recent efforts to restrict the vote. Mr. Holder reflected on that history, shared his own work to ensure equitable voting and gave his take on the country’s current political moment in a conversation with the journalist Michele Norris at the Martha’s Vineyard Author Series on Thursday night.

Eric Holder — Mark Alan Lovewell

“This is a very special treat for me tonight because I’m here with Eric Holder, a man of ideas, a man of principle, a man who happens to be a very trusted friend and very dear to me,” Ms. Norris said to a sold out crowd at the Chilmark Community Center.

Voter disenfranchisement in America is as old as the country itself, Mr. Holder said. When George Washington ran for president, only one in six people in the country were eligible to vote. The first organized effort to expand the franchise came from propertyless white men who wanted a say in how the new country would be run.

“It has been a constant struggle–white men without property, women, African Americans on a couple occasions–fighting for the right to vote,” Mr. Holder said. “It has been an ongoing struggle, one that we have not fully resolved.”

Since leaving the Department of Justice (DOJ), Mr. Holder has dedicated a significant amount of time to resolving that struggle. In 2017 he started the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, an organization that fights against partisan gerrymandering. Carving up the electoral map allows politicians to enact laws that are out of touch with what their constituents want, he said.

Michele Norris — Mark Alan Lovewell

“In a gerrymandered-safe seat, you can do things that are inconsistent with the desires of your constituents and not suffer any electoral consequences,” Mr. Holder said.

Mr. Holder traced the outpouring of laws to restrict voting to 2013, when the U.S. Supreme Court stripped the federal government of its authority to enforce the Voting Rights Act of 1965 with its decision in Shelby County v. Holder. Mr. Holder shared that he prefers not to say the full name of the case.

“We don’t call it the Shelby County vs. Holder case…you wouldn’t want your name associated with a case like that, so it’s just the Shelby County case,” Mr. Holder said with a smile. “An abomination of a case in 2013.”

As a public figure at the time, Mr. Holder said he felt he needed to cushion the blow of the decision by staying optimistic. But he said he would have sounded the alarm bells more forcefully if he knew then how quickly states would act to curtail access to the ballot. And those efforts have disproportionately affected people of color, he added. Mr. Holder pointed to voter identification laws and the closure of polling places in Black communities as examples.

“[There has been] just a deluge of anti-democratic, anti-American measures to try to keep certain people away from the polls,” Mr. Holder said.

Ms. Smith then asked Mr. Holder if he would charge Donald Trump and his allies for their role in the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. To answer that question, Mr. Holder turned to Lanny Breuer, the former head of the criminal division at the DOJ, who was sitting in the crowd.

“So Lanny, would we bring this case?” Mr. Holder asked

“We would bring it in a minute,” Mr. Breuer responded.

The crowd applauded and Mr. Holder agreed. Indicting a former president is not an easy decision, but in this case it is the right call, he said.

“You end up with indict, divide [the country], don’t indict, divide [the country], so just do the damn right thing. Enforce the rule of law,” Mr. Holder said. “You broke the law, you tried to subvert our democracy, you got caught, we’ve got proof, so let’s charge it.”

Turning away from current events, Mr. Holder ended the conversation with a call to action. Mr. Holder put his own spin on a famous proverb by Martin Luther King, Jr. to explain why it is important to keep up the fight, no matter how bleak the outlook.

“Dr. King said that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” Mr. Holder said. “It doesn’t bend on its own, it only bends when people like us put our hands on that arc and pull it towards justice.”