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February 16, 2020

Voting roadblocks persist, even 100 years after 19th Amendment – What you can do

“I’ve had a front-row view of injustice for most of my life,” said Mimi Marziani at “Celebrating Democracy: 150 Years of Voting Rights,” held Feb. 14 at the American Bar Association Midyear Meeting in Austin, Texas.

She described herself as “a white woman, the daughter of a small-town attorney. We were comfortably middle class in a small, rural southern town. Growing up, I knew that I am descended from slave owners.” Marziani said she also knew that the white side of town had plumbing, while the black side did not receive it until the 1990s.

Today, Marziani is president of the Texas Civil Rights Project, where, “we use the power of law to try give everyone a fair shot.”

One area they are working to give everyone a fair shot is protecting the right to vote in the Lone Star State.

According to Marziani, the task is large:

“For more than 40 years, every redistricting map drawn by state lawmakers has been found by courts to be racist and illegal under the Voting Rights Act,” she said.

“It’s also illegal to run a voter registration drive in Texas, unless you get preapproved by the government and jump through a bunch of hoops.”

“That means Freedom Summer would have been outlawed,” Marziani said of the historic voter drive in Mississippi in 1964.

“These injustices are racially discriminatory, they’re fundamentally unfair, they’re offensive to core American values. But they’re also self-fulfilling, because when you undermine democracy itself, you protect the people in charge at the expense of everybody else.”

Marziani noted that 100 years ago, the ratification of the 19th Amendment after 70 years of struggle “was a huge step forward,” but it was only a victory for white women. Women of color were all left out of the right to vote.

“What was legal changed from one day to the next, but what was right hadn’t changed at all,” she said. “It still hasn’t.”

“As attorneys, we know how to scrutinize the law as it is. We also know how to imagine the law as it should be,” Marziani said. “And we can use that power to make voting the right that is promised rather than a privilege that is only available to some.”

She turned her focus to just one voting issue: “active attempts to roll back the clock by suppressing voting.”

“Since 2011 across this country we’ve seen a new wave of laws aimed at making voting and voter registration more difficult,” Marziani said, and cited the 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby v. Holder, whichgutted the Voting Rights Act.” And without the protections afforded by the act, “state actors have a green light to use discriminatory tactics.”

Among the examples she gave was that in 2019, Texas tried to pass SB9, a “Frankenstein anti-voter bill with all sorts of suppression tactics stitched together,” including

  • adding red tape regarding driving people to the polls,
  • making it a crime to make a clerical error on a voter registration form and
  • allowing state officials to conduct undercover sting operations of grassroots community groups.

“We were able to kill that bill,” Marziani said.

In addition, last year Texas tried to purge 100,000 naturalized citizens from the voter rolls, most of them people of color, she said. The Texas Civil Rights Project sued and won. The judge pointedly noted in his opinion: “The state’s actions exemplify the power of government to strike fear and anxiety and to intimidate the least powerful among us.”

“It is an incredible privilege to be an attorney in the United States of America,” Marziani said, and pointed out that “there is a lot of power at this conference today.” So what, she asked, are we going to do with it? Her suggestions include:

  • Call out voter suppression
    • “Name it and reject it, regardless of political party”
    • Ask why ex-felons can’t vote?
    • Ask why is the legal voting age 18 rather than 16, when other privileges of adulthood convey?
    • Ask why can’t legal permanent residents vote?
  • Help cultivate a pipeline of diverse attorneys “to fix democracy”
  • Invest at both federal and local levels, and work for
    • Same day registration
    • Automatic registration
  • Staff a hotline on voting questions
  • Serve as a poll monitor.

“We mark anniversaries to celebrate, and also to remember where we’ve been and to remind us of where we’re going when the future looks uncertain,” she said.  “The arc of history bends toward justice, but only if we decide to bend it that way.”

Marziani was followed by three panelists who spoke of ways lawyers could get involved in elections and civic literacy, including in the classroom. State Bar of Texas Law Related Education Director Jan Miller of Austin discussed the resources available for lawyers to become civically engaged. The bar has classroom lessons by grade level, kids’ books, a puzzle activity on voting and an exercise where kids watch animations of famous Americans’ accomplishments and vote for which one should have a school named after them.

Holli Welch, a lawyer with Woodhouse Roden Nethercott LLC in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and the ABA Young Lawyers Division representative for Wyoming and Colorado, gave a shout-out to the civic engagement resources available from the Texas Young Lawyers Association.

Elizabeth Yang, a member of the ABA Standing Committee on Election Law and the Commission on the 19th Amendment and the president of consulting firm WStrong, talked about the “practical tools” available from the ABA, including those from the Division of Public Education and  

The program was sponsored by the National Conference of Bar Presidents, the National Associations of Bar Executives and National Conference of Bar Foundations.