In kicking off the discussion, American Bar Association President James R. Silkenat talked about “the importance of voting and of ensuring that our nation’s election laws permit the broadest, least restrictive access to the ballot box.” Expanding on his earlier video message for Law Day, he said, “When an eligible voter is deprived of the opportunity to cast a ballot, the harm is not only to that voter, but also to our government, which becomes that much less representative of the people.”
Silkenat also praised President Obama’s Law Day 2014 Proclamation, reading part of it: “This Law Day pays special tribute to the right to vote, the cornerstone of democracy. Many Americans won the franchise after generations of struggle, while others gave their lives so their children and grandchildren might one day enjoy what should have been their birthright.”
Participants said they were impressed by the recent report from the President’s Commission on Elections. The report was “a wonderful, pleasant surprise,” because it looked at election reform from the point of view of the voter, said Elisabeth MacNamara, president of the League of Women Voters.
The report focused on President Obama’s call that no one should have to wait more than 30 minutes to vote. Nancy Tate, executive director of the League of Women Voters, said that goal was even more aggressive than their organization expected. She pointed out that focusing on the 30-minute benchmark would assist in fixing other problems with the process, but that it would also require increased funding.
The role that lawyers can and should play in the election process and election reform was emphasized. Silkenat pointed out the enormous difference in voting laws across jurisdictions. “Lawyers can work to harmonize the laws to vote,” he said.
Participants also called on lawyers to volunteer to work as poll workers and favored having law firms give their staff the time to work elections. “The great thing about lawyers is that we’re everywhere,” MacNamara said. “We’re our own grassroots movement, and who better to understand local election laws and assist at the polls?” State-by-state information on volunteering can be found at lawyercitizen.org.
Other ideas discussed by the panel included lowering barriers to voting, modernizing the election process and increasing the role of lawyers in the election process. Specifically:
- D.C. Bar Association President Andrea Ferser suggested giving residents of the District of Columbia representation in Congress.
- ABA President-Elect William Hubbard talked about the need to keep young voters engaged and voting by allowing electronic voting.
- Gail Leftwich Kitch, the chief operating officer of The Voter Participation Center, called for more uniformity among states. Because every state uses different technologies, she said, the different databases cannot communicate and voters can’t transfer their current registration from state to state.
Panelists also discussed the apathy of the electorate and the importance of educating the population on the significance of voting. “It’s not just legal barriers [to voting] but barriers of the mind,” MacNamara said. Information sites such as vote411.org were mentioned as useful tools to guide voters through the process.
The ABA’s Standing Committee on Election Law released its report, Dialogues on Election Reform: A Continuing Conversation with the States, at the meeting. The report was a compilation of findings from a series of town hall meetings held in early spring 2014 to promote discussion on election reform with members of state and local bar associations, state and local election administrators and civic groups, local election lawyers, as well as representatives of both political parties.
Each town hall concentrated on a specific issue:
- Early voting (Miami)
- Voter ID (Philadelphia)
- Election administration and voter registration (Columbus, Ohio
- Redistricting (Austin, Texas)
- Innovations in voting (Portland, Ore.)
- Election reforms and next steps (Tempe, Ariz.)
The report took views from all sides and put forth key questions that must be addressed. It also focused on ways lawyers could aid in being part of the solution.
“We need to move to a place where everyone who is eligible to vote, can vote,” Silkenat said. “And we’re so far from that now.”