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Experts discuss threats to democracy at voting rights webinar

Legal experts participating in the American Bar Association webinar “Sixth Annual State of Voting Rights” agreed that some of the greatest threats to the democratic system today include election sabotage, failure to have free and fair elections, intentional discrimination due to structural challenges, misinformation, election subversion and legislation seeking to suppress the vote.

ABA webinar panelists said Congress can help create and support laws aimed at preventing election subversion.

ABA webinar panelists said Congress can help create and support laws aimed at preventing election subversion.

“The overwhelmingness of the problem is the biggest threat,” said Addisu Demissie, executive director of More Than a Vote. “But we have to keep pushing the ball up the hill.”

Panelists discussed various things that need to be done to protect voting rights and combat election subversion, but said they were optimistic about the responses to the injustices they have seen.

When it comes to voting rights, Native Americans are “often left behind,” said Jacqueline De León, staff attorney at Native American Rights Fund. Structural roadblocks to fair elections include poor roads, lack of polling places, poor mail delivery on reservations and the fact that reservations might not use home addresses, as required by some voting laws. De León said county and state legislatures take advantage of those deficiencies and use them to keep Native Americans from voting.

Other barriers that impact voting is misinformation and disinformation, said Demissie. The challenges require countering false information and getting people good information. For the 2020 election, Demisse said his organization got creative and partnered with gaming companies. They embedded information about how to vote and the importance of voting into the game NBA 2K. “You can have the best laws to encourage people to vote, but if folks don’t know how to exercise their rights, they are less likely to do it. That’s the gap we’re trying to fill.”

There have been 33 new laws in 19 states since the 2020 election that restrict voter access, Demissie said. For example, Texas has instituted laws to require voter ID, reduce the number of polling places and hours available to vote, reduce early voting opportunities, conduct voter purges and require signature matching.

De León is litigating in Montana where a ban on ballot collection and same-day voter registration have been instituted. She said those work against Native Americans who live 120 miles away from the county seat where they would be allowed to register.

De León said the laws are seemingly neutral, but they target specific communities. For an example, states that require addresses on ID’s work against Native Americans who do not have addresses on their homes.

Panelists said Congress can help create and support laws aimed at preventing election subversion. “We need a new Voting Rights Act, but the five-alarm fire is the risk of election subversion,” said Richard Hasen, professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine School of Law.

The webinar was sponsored by the ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice.

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