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February 16, 2020

Lawyers detail gerrymandering challenges for vulnerable populations

Here’s how many U.S. homeless people think about voting: they might get arrested, their vote isn’t going to count “anyway,” there will be long waits and the machines might not work.

Despite those negative perceptions of voting, Chad Dunn, director of litigation, Voting Rights Project at the UCLA Latino Policy & Politics Initiative, said there is a lot lawyers can do to help homeless voters and others who are disenfranchised and vulnerable.

He was a panelist on the program, “One Person, (N)one Vote: Gerrymandering with the Help of the Disenfranchised,” presented by the Standing Committee on Election Law as a part of the Defending Liberty Pursuing Justice Summit  on Feb. 14 at the ABA Midyear Meeting in Austin, Texas.

“There’s a lot of confusion for homeless people,” James Heaton, supervising attorney for the Mission United Veterans Pro Bono Project, agreed. “And not a lot of resources.”

However, Dunn said if lawyers spread a new message about voting, it might get more people to the polls. That message is, “It’s safe. It’s fun. It’s easy.”

“The more who get that message the better,” he said.

“In your local community, you’re powerful,” Dunn said. He said lawyers should take a “softer approach” when dealing with local election people, whom he characterized as overworked and trying to do their best with fewer resources.

He said that lawyers should volunteer in elections and utilize the organizations represented on the panel for reinforcement to combat voting issues in their districts.

They should also “speak up,” when there isn’t enough “bandwidth,” Dunn advised, and utilize the “see something, say something,” rule.

Nancy Abudu, deputy legal director of voting rights at the Southern Poverty Law Center, and member of the Standing Committee on Election Law,  said lawyers have to “strike the right balance,” and continue to encourage people to vote. People have to realize, “Not voting, really is a vote to someone who doesn’t have your best interest,” she said.

Voting policies extend to obtaining accurate census counts and redistricting, the panelists said, especially with respect to prison-based gerrymandering and transient homeless populations.

Sean Young, legal director at the ACLU of Georgia, gave an overview of prison-based gerrymandering. He shared a hypothetical situation in which there is a city of 10,000 people with five representatives of single-member districts with 2,000 people in each of their districts. However, one district has a prison with 1,800 incarcerated people who cannot vote because of felony conviction status. Therefore, in four districts you have 2,000 eligible voters, in one district you have 200 eligible voters.

“Those 200 people have as much say in the city’s affairs as the 2,000 people in each of the other districts,” Young said. “So, we have a one- person, one-vote problem.”

 “The question is: Does that violate the equal protection clause?” he asked.

This situation takes place in rural, predominately white cities with a high prison population of largely people of color. “So you have essentially a district that is using black bodies to increase their political power for a minority of voters,” Young said.

In a lot of states, he added, the residency of an incarcerated person is counted as where they lived before they were arrested and not the prison itself. “So their legal residency is not even in that district.”

Abudu said that this week, the Southern Poverty Law Center issued a report, “Alive and Well: Voter Suppression and Election Mismanagement in Alabama,” in which they call on the state of Alabama to make critical changes to its voting processes.

According to the report, Alabama’s eligible voters still find it difficult to register and cast a ballot. The state’s voter ID law, which the SPLC considers burdensome, it is part of the problem.

Other issues in Alabama include the purging of hundreds of thousands of people from voting rolls, no early voting in the state and the closing of polling places.

The SPLC report also calls for more oversight on how counties conduct their elections.

The panel agreed that expanding access to voting registration is critical.

The program was sponsored by the ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice, ABA Standing Committee on Election Law, ABA Center for Public Interest Law, ABA Division for Public Education and the ABA Criminal Justice Section.