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July 22, 2022 Vol. 47, No. 6

In effort to preserve rule of law, some bars focus on voting rights

By Dan Kittay

In the wake of actions in parts of the country to alter election rules, some bars have been working to help educate their members and the public about what they see as threats to the voting process.

"We're committed to protecting and rebuilding the rule of law in our nation,” says Stephen Kass, chair of the Task Force on the Rule of Law at the New York City Bar. “The foundation for that is fair elections. The electoral process is the foundation for all governmental legitimacy. The right to vote is absolutely fundamental to fair elections."

The task force, in conjunction with the bar's Election Law Committee, issued a report in September 2021 that called for Congress to pass the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, and for the legal profession as a whole to begin a "broader response" to the threats to voting rights.

The report was not intended to be a partisan effort, Kass says. In looking at court cases and state legislative actions in recent years, he explains, "it became more and more apparent that the electoral system was being attacked and undermined."

Because of the "attacks on the presidential election [of 2020] by those who thought it was illegitimate,” Kass says, “we thought it was important to look at the electoral process and to emphasize the need for lawyers everywhere to help protect that process."

Part of the effort to engage lawyers includes asking them to sign a Lawyer's Pledge that notes, in part, that while the signers represent different parts of the political spectrum, they agree that "Democracy depends on 'the consent of the governed,' which in turn requires free and fair elections in which all eligible citizens are encouraged and able to vote and the candidate with the most votes—popular or, in presidential elections, electoral—wins."

The New York City Bar distributed the pledge to its 45,000 members, as well as to leaders of the ABA and other bars around the country, Kass says. There is now an effort in its early stages to speak with leaders of other bars directly, to try to increase awareness among the nation's lawyers of the need to act.

Bar Association of San Francisco learns about efforts in Georgia

A centerpiece of the Bar Association of San Francisco's efforts to support voting rights was its October 2021 presentation of a discussion with the New Georgia Project's Chief Executive Officer Nsé Ufot, says BASF Executive Director and General Counsel Yolanda Jackson. The New Georgia Project was founded by Stacey Abrams to help ensure voting equality in Georgia.

"Part of the discussion was about why should Californians care, because we don't have some of the issues that other states have. [Ufot] made the point that we could always travel to neighboring states where there are bigger issues,” Jackson says. “We also have places like the Central Valley in California that have had issues at polling places with making sure that everyone gets a fair vote."

Ufot's talk, part of the BASF's Racial Justice Series, addressed how voting intersects with race. “We know historically that's not a stretch,” Jackson says, noting that this was the purpose of the Voting Rights Act.

BASF has a long history of involvement in voting rights issues, she adds. In 2014, the bar trained volunteer members to go to area high schools and give presentations on voting rights. With the current climate around elections, Jackson says it may be time to consider reviving the program.

The bar's voting rights-related activities also include a celebration of the bicentennial of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote, and a ceremony in honor of voting rights activist John Lewis.

Philadelphia Bar Association considers voting rights central to mission

Philadelphia was one center of controversy in the 2020 presidential election, and the Philadelphia Bar Association has been working on efforts to ensure that voting rights are preserved.

In the 2020 election, there were disputes in Philadelphia and elsewhere in Pennsylvania about whether some absentee ballots should be counted, and the Philadelphia bar issued statements calling for all votes to be counted, says Executive Director Harvey Hurdle.

The bar is also very involved in issuing recommendations about judicial election candidates and informing the public through social media and other avenues about the recommendations. Apart from his work at the bar, Hurdle himself has served as a judge in several elections, including the 2020 presidential election.

As the midterm elections approach, his bar is exploring working with local legal aid associations to help with voter registration drives, and other activities related to voting rights, Hurdle says.

"We view access to the ballot as an access to justice issue,” he explains. “Access to justice is part of our mission."

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