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August 11, 2021

How U.S. voting rights are under attack – and your help is needed

Four panelists at the American Bar Association’s 2021 Hybrid Annual Meeting urged lawyers to get involved in elections to ensure that all who are eligible to vote can do so, despite efforts in some states to make voting more difficult.

The panelists represented Black, Hispanic and Asian civil rights groups that are challenging election law changes in several states. The groups oppose new state laws that, among other things, restrict mail-in voting and early voting and shift election responsibilities from local election boards and secretaries of state to partisan legislatures.

“America’s free and fair elections are the bedrock of our democracy, but today they are under attack,’ U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) said in an opening statement. “Today, cynical politicians are spreading false claims of voting fraud for their own political advantage.”

The remarks came in an Aug. 4 program titled “Voting Rights: A Discussion on Legislation, Strategy and Developments in the Movement for Voting Justice,” hosted by the ABA Commission on Hispanic Legal Rights & Responsibilities.

Moderator Thomas Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), said two patterns are emerging in 2021. On the state level, there are “an unprecedented number of proposals to change how elections are run.” Meanwhile, Congress is considering two bills to set national standards of voting.

“There’s no question this has been a contentious year already and we’re only halfway through it,” with battles over redistricting yet to come, Saenz said.

Sherrilynn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said the issue goes beyond race or ethnicity. “When the right to vote is threatened against citizens who are eligible to vote, we have not just a civil rights problem, we have not just a race problem … but we have a democracy problem.”

The NAACP is challenging new laws in Georgia that, among other things, make it illegal for anyone but election workers to provide food or water to people waiting in line to vote. In Fulton County, Georgia – which includes most of Atlanta – Ifill said some voters waited up to nine hours to vote last year.

“Where is the evidence of the influence of people standing in line and getting a Coke or getting water from a volunteer?” Ifill asked. “Where’s the evidence that that’s even happening? Where’s the evidence that people are trading water for influence?”

John Yang, president of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, said new voting laws hurt the ability of many Asian Americans to vote. Many Asian Americans, he said, prefer mail-in voting and early voting – two methods targeted by laws that have been adopted or are being considered in several states.

Yang faulted courts for allowing such restrictions despite little evidence of a threat to election integrity. “There is no evidence of massive fraud,” Yang said, “no evidence that this will actually provide for greater election integrity.”

But William Kresse, a Republican member of the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners, said election fraud does exist, though it is not widespread.

“I’ve worked polls,” Kresse said. “I’ve seen shenanigans going on. It does happen. Is it widespread? No… The key is: Are the controls you’re putting in place effective to stop that sort of fraud? You don’t wait till someone has ransacked your house to put a lock on your door. On the other hand, you don’t put locks on doors that lead to nowhere. There has to be some logic behind it.”

All of the panelists urged lawyers to get more involved in the issue. Yang recommended that more lawyers become poll workers. Kresse urged lawyers to explain the issues to neighbors and friends. Ifill recommended that lawyers fight unjust laws.

“I think lawyers have a special obligation to speak out on this core issue of democracy,” she said.

The program was cosponsored by the ABA Civil Rights and Social Justice Section, the Coalition on Racial and Ethnic Justice, the Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession, the Standing Committee on Election Law and the Commission on Homelessness & Poverty.