The American Bar Association Midyear Meeting program, “Stepping Up, Lawyers Defending Democracy,” provided actionable ways for lawyers to help defend democracy.
“Lawyers are essential stewards of democracy,” said Stephen Cobb a member at Cozen O’Connor and the ABA’s inaugural Democracy fellow. “We need your participation, and we need it now, not just on Election Day.”
Indeed, election experts on the panel said that lawyers are needed before, during and beyond Election Day.
“Many people don’t realize that running an election is not something where you show up on a Monday before election and set up a machine and then go home when the polls close on Tuesday night,” said David Becker, executive director and founder of Center for Election Innovation & Research in Washington, D.C. “It is a 365-day job.”
Noting the “remarkable job” that civil servants and poll workers do, Becker said states have seen an attrition of election workers, but also that he is not worried because he has also seen where others have “stepped up.”
“When people ask me what I’m worried about for 2024, one thing I am not worried about is that I have no doubt that the election officials of this country will produce an election that will withstand any level of scrutiny,” Becker said. “That it will be accessible to all eligible voters and will count ballots accurately.”
Becker said he is concerned about disinformation and the stress placed on poll workers. “It’s really important for election officials to know there are citizens across the political spectrum that have their back. Lawyers will play a really big role in this and in the election overall,” he said.
One way lawyers can get involved is by becoming poll workers. Jason Kaune, who heads the political law section at Nielsen Merksamer Parrinello Gross & Leoni LLP in San Rafael, California, and is chair of the ABA Standing Committee on Election Law, said every jurisdiction across the country needs poll workers.
“There is a role for a lawyer of any ideological stripe,” he said.
“Lawyers are well qualified for this role,” Kaune said. “We know how to follow rules, we know when people get upset, we know how to de-escalate and deal with conflict; we’re built for this role.”
Kaune said the ABA’s Poll Worker Esq. initiative is once again looking for lawyers to join. He added that lawyers can help educate the public by looking at election pre- and post-litigation to explain to citizens what transpired to help diminish misinformation.
He also encouraged lawyers to get involved in the various initiatives the ABA has dedicated to democracy, including the Task Force for American Democracy and the Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice Perfecting Democracy.
Jose Castro, associate at Spencer Fane in Denver, said the Young Lawyers Division kicked off its Public Service and Civic Engagement initiative at the meeting to get more young lawyers participating in civic engagement.
Angie Pitha, project lead at the Election Official Legal Defense Network, said there are opportunities for lawyers to provide pro bono assistance to election workers who have been the victim of threats and harassments for “doing their jobs of running fair and transparent elections.”
“We need more,” Pitha said. “The demand will keep growing, especially this year.”
Moderator for the event, Elizabeth Yang, spoke about the Section of State and Local Government Law’s initiative, Defending Democracy.
“We think it’s really important people understand who poll workers are,” she said.
“They are your neighbors, friends, people you go grocery shopping with, people you go to church or temple with. Election workers are not people parachuting in trying to change the course of an election,” Yang said.
“They are following rules that have been years in the making.”
Yang said the section conducts tours of local election facilities as they did in Louisville because a significant way to combat misinformation is at the local level. It is important for people to see how their local elections are run.
The ABA House of Delegates passed a policy resolution (Resolution 500) at the 2023 Annual Meeting urging the adoption of laws and policies protecting the safety of all election workers.
Also on the panel was Cynthia Swann, the chief of staff of theHip Hop Caucus and co-chair of the Section of State and Local Government Law’s Government Operations Committee. The program was sponsored by the Section of State and Local Government Law.