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July 09, 2024

ABA announces recipients of Unsung Heroes of Democracy Award

CHICAGO, July 9, 2024 — The American Bar Association Task Force for American Democracy has named 22 individuals and organizations as recipients of the Unsung Heroes of Democracy Award. Among the awardees are 8 organizations and 14 individuals, including five election officials, who significantly advanced the cause of protecting American democracy across the nation.

The award recognizes those individuals and organizations who work every day, often behind the scenes or without fanfare, to ensure that our elections are secure and that the democratic ideals set forth in the U.S. Constitution are upheld. The award was open to everyday lawyers, state and local officials and other citizens who have stood up for democracy and free and fair elections in their communities. Nonprofit organizations that support election workers and lawyers under threat and exhibit a strong commitment to the Constitution, rule of law and democracy also were eligible.

“Our democracy and our election process have been under attack in recent years,” ABA President Mary Smith said. “With our Unsung Heroes of Democracy Award, the ABA wants to recognize those individuals and groups that have answered the call to stand up for our system of government. By simply doing their jobs, they help ensure our democratic system will endure. By honoring these people and organizations, we hope we can inspire more people to become involved and to protect democracy and the rule of law.”

President Smith will present the awards in Chicago during the Democracy Summit luncheon at the ABA Annual Meeting on Friday, Aug. 2.

Nominations were received and the winners selected by the Task Force for American Democracy Unsung Heroes Award Selection Committee. 

Organizational winners

Arizona Native Vote Election Protection Project. For more than 10 years, this group has coordinated “get out the vote” campaigns and election protection efforts in response to disparities in voting in Arizona that placed a unique burden on Native American voters. The project educates various organizations, students, attorneys and community members on the nuances at the intersection of election law and federal Indian law.

Braver Angels. Launched in 2016, the organization brings together people of varying political perspectives not to compromise their deepest convictions but to find one another as citizens. Through its depolarization programming, including workshops, debates, campus engagement and other offerings, Braver Angels helps Americans understand each other beyond stereotypes, appreciate each other’s differing experiences and reduce the vitriol that poisons our civic culture.

Center for Election Innovation & Research. The center is known for its nonpartisan work with election officials of both parties, conducting research, coordinating pro bono legal defense for election officials under threat of harassment and advocating for best practices that have tangibly improved the security, transparency and efficiency of our elections.

Committee of 70. The group is recognized for its defense of the rights of voters, advocacy for electoral reforms, promotion of transparent and accountable government and fostering of a culture of civic responsibility and democratic resilience in our communities.

Equip for Equality. This organization is known for its partnership with the Chicago Board of Elections to improve voting access for people with disabilities at each of Chicago’s more than 1,200 polling places. As part of this work, Chicago has gone from having nearly 850 inaccessible precinct polling places in 2016 to less than 90 in 2024, with all Early Voting/Vote Center locations now 100% ADA compliant.

Keep Our Republic. It is recognized for supporting election workers, lawyers and everyday citizens who stand up for democracy, protect against unconventional threats facing our election system and advance ways to help strengthen citizen trust in our electoral system.

New York City Bar Association Task Force on the Rule of Law. The task force’s work, programming, and relationships with numerous institutions in metropolitan New York have been a beacon of hope and action for lawyers and the American public to support democracy and build the rule of law.

North Dakota Native Vote. The organization stands out as the only statewide organization in North Dakota that works to build power for North Dakota’s Native communities by ensuring Native voices are included in the processes that affect their daily lives. From advocating for equal access to polling places to challenging discriminatory voter ID laws, North Dakota Native Vote has been at the forefront of the fight for electoral justice and fairness and instrumental in amplifying Native American voices in the political arena, advocating for policies that advance tribal sovereignty, protect natural resources and improve the quality of life for Indigenous communities.

Individual winners

Bob Bauer and Ben Ginsberg (Washington, D.C.). Although political law adversaries for 40 years, the two joined forces after the 2020 election to create and co-chair two nonprofits designed to help election officials as they face unprecedented attacks for carrying out their duties. The Election Official Legal Defense Network, founded in 2021, connects election officials in need of advice or assistance with licensed, qualified pro bono attorneys and with communications professionals. The Pillars of the Community program seeks to bolster public faith in our elections and the officials tasked with administering them by engaging a politically diverse group of civic leaders with election officials to discuss the operation and integrity of the electoral process and the safeguards in place.

Katherine Culliton-González (Silver Spring, Maryland). Her unwavering dedication to fair elections, democracy and the rule of law has had a profound, positive impact in her community. As a civil rights attorney, she has dedicated her career to upholding the Constitution, championing democracy and continuously fighting to protect voting rights and fair elections.

Gent Haviari (Dartmouth, New Hampshire). Haviari is honored for his leadership in civic engagement at UMass Dartmouth throughout his academic career. Most notably, he has served as coordinator of the UMassD Votes Coalition, which helps recruit undergraduate students, graduate students and law students on campus to work together to increase voter turnout. During his tenure on the coalition, he has helped develop an extensive action plan for the upcoming year to increase campus voter turnout, organized students to work the polls during election season and held monthly meetings to update the coalition on the action plan’s development and how it will be used to further the coalition’s goals and ultimately increase voter turnout.

William J. Kresse (Chicago, Illinois). Kresse has provided remarkable leadership as one of three members on the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners, valuable teaching and research on fraud examination, auditing and accounting, and innovative guidance in founding the Institute of Election Auditors.

Michael Stiegler (Washington, D.C.). As an officer in the Situation Room during the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, he epitomizes the essence of the Unsung Heroes of Democracy Award as one of the thousands of career civil servants who do their jobs every day behind the scenes to keep the government running and our republic safe and secure.

Christine Torbett (Columbus, Ohio). For many years, she has volunteered as a poll worker to make sure the elections in her community are free and fair. Through her efforts, she has demonstrated the impact that one everyday citizen can have when it comes to defending our democracy.

Suzanne Spaulding (Washington, D.C.). Spaulding has dedicated her career to work in the critical areas of democracy building, education about the rule of law and threats to our democracy and election security. She has provided her expertise as director of the Defending Democratic Institutions project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, former chair of the ABA Standing Committee on Law and National Security, former member of the ABA Standing Committee on Public Education and leader of projects such as Civics at Work and others that build national resilience through reinvigoration of civic education and understanding of the rule of law. As undersecretary for the Department of Homeland Security, she led the National Protection and Programs Directorate, charged with strengthening cybersecurity and protecting the nation’s critical infrastructure, including election security.

Robert Weisenbach (Erie, Pennsylvania). As the postmaster at the Erie General Mail Facility, he exemplified dedication, integrity and resilience in upholding the democratic process during the tumultuous events surrounding the 2020 presidential election. Despite facing unprecedented challenges and unwarranted attacks on his character, he remained steadfast in ensuring the integrity of the electoral system. His leadership and meticulous adherence to U.S. Postal Service mandates ensured that every vote was counted, contributing to the democratic process and safeguarding the rights of voters.

Election Officials

As election officials, each of these individuals has stood firm for our institutions and the electoral process, ensuring that all voters — regardless of whom they voted for — were heard. These individuals stand out among the dedicated men and women nationwide who, faced with unprecedented threats, serve on the front lines of our democratic process and facilitate convenient, secure, accurate and safe elections.

Cathy Darling Allen (Shasta County Clerk and Registrar of Voters, Shasta County, California).

Bill Gates (Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, Phoenix, Arizona).

Michella Huff (Surry County Board of Elections, Dobson, North Carolina).

Stephen Richer (Maricopa County Recorder, Phoenix, Arizona).

Meagan Wolfe (Wisconsin Elections Commission, Madison, Wisconsin).

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