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Experts discuss universal suffrage at ABA Law Day event

Experts discuss universal suffrage at ABA Law Day event

By John Glynn

Distinguished scholars joined American Bar Association leaders on May 1 — Law Day 2014 — for a panel discussion on the importance of the right to vote. Panelists at the Leon Jaworski Public Program in Washington, D.C., analyzed issues related to suffrage and efforts to make it universal.

ABA President James R. Silkenat opened the discussion at the Woodrow Wilson International Center by emphasizing that challenges remain in “ensuring that every vote matters and that everyone has the opportunity to participate in our democracy.”

“It would be nice if we had a right to vote,” said panelist Hendrik Hertzberg, board member at FairVote, acknowledging that the Constitution does not explicitly state voting rights, except in its amendments. Hertzberg, who is also senior editor at The New Yorker, said that a specific constitutional provision on the right to vote, “like the right to speak freely or the right to pack a gun,” would help to limit voter suppression.

Panelist Aurelian Craiutu, a political science professor at Indiana University, agreed that such a provision could help achieve more universal suffrage. Without it, questions of voting eligibility will remain. In the past, “the ways in which ‘the people’ are defined over time has carried out restrictive connotations.”

Panelists also debated restrictions to suffrage. Claudio Lopez-Guerra, a research professor at the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics, advocated more universal rights, even extending the right to vote to felons and people with mental impairments.

Panelist Roger Clegg, president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity, disagreed, suggesting several restrictions to the electorate: “I don’t think people who are mentally incompetent should vote. I don’t think that noncitizens should vote, and I don’t think people who have been convicted of serious crimes should vote — certainly not when they’re in prison and not until after they’ve served their sentences and shown they’ve turned over a new leaf.”

Clegg said there are certain minimum objective standards of responsibility to laws. “People in those categories don’t meet those minimum qualifications,” he added.

“The Vote: When Does Suffrage Become Universal?” also included panelist Janai S. Nelson, professor at St. John’s University School of Law. John Milewski, director of digital programming at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, served as moderator.

The 13th annual ABA Leon Jaworski Public Program was sponsored by the ABA Division for Public Education.

To watch video of the program, click here.

ABA Law Day activities engage youth

President Barack Obama recognized Law Day with a proclamation that emphasized voting rights: “Let us remember that opportunity requires justice, and justice requires the right to vote.”

The importance of voting rights was the message that the ABA shared with the next generation of voters at its Dialogue on Voting on the eve of Law Day, on April 30.

Organized by the Standing Committee on Public Education and the Close Up Foundation in Washington, D.C., the event engaged more than 350 middle and high school students from around the nation in a discussion about voting rights and voter engagement issues.

Law Day Chair Pauline Weaver and Committee Chair Kim Askew led the discussion. Students explored such questions as: Should voting be required? What should voting in elections be like in the future? Students tweeted live from the discussion at #abalawday.

The 2014 Law Day theme, “American Democracy and the Rule of Law: Why Every Vote Matters,” marks the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Acts of 1965 and calls on every American to reflect on the progress that has been made and the importance of a citizen’s right to vote and the challenges that remain to ensure all Americans can fully participate in democracy.

Visit the ABA’s Law Day website for information about Law Day programs throughout the country.

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