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More lawyers are needed to fill gaps in election process, experts say

With the 2020 election less than a year away, voting rights was the focus of the November program, “Fourth Annual State of Voting Rights,” held at Steptoe & Johnson LLP in Washington, D.C.

A panel of legal experts explored ongoing voting rights cases, gerrymandering, new state laws and attempts to restrict the right to.

Jason Abel, moderator and special counsel for the ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice and a partner at Steptoe & Johnson, asked the panel for practical ideas for how attorneys could help ensure the 2020 elections are accessible and fair.

“There is something that every attorney in this room can do,” said John Powers, counsel for the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights under Law Voting Rights Project, and asked lawyers to help run the nation’s largest nonpartisan election protection hotline. “Any attorney can work as a volunteer answering calls on the hotline – you don’t need to have prior election litigation experience. We train you up,” he said.

When tough calls come up, experts provide guidance. “A lot of the litigation that we do actually has arisen from phone calls we get,” Powers said.

The program, Election Protection, runs the hotline 1-866-OUR-VOTE, not just on Election Day, but also during the primaries and early voting.

“We’re always looking to expand. If you have any time, make that commitment,” he said.

Powers also asked the more than 60 lawyers in the room to disseminate the 1-866-OUR-VOTE number.

“Get it out there,” he encouraged. “That’s really how we find out about problems and how they are occurring.”

Things as simple as polling places not opening on time or poll workers refusing to offer provisional ballots can suppress voting. “Sometimes we can call the election official and take care of it right then. Other times it does arise to a litigation level,” he said.

Orion Danjuma, staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union Racial Justice Program, said lawyers who are in practices outside of election law and civil rights have an “obligation to educate people in your circle.”

”Because I think many people who aren’t part of the legal field at all, they’ll see some of the suppressive measures as common sensical. Why shouldn’t we have proof of citizenship?” he said. “Why shouldn’t people show a passport like most of us have got those … and we’ll really know you’re a citizen and that is the way many of these measures are sold to the public without understanding this … deep history of marginalizing people of color and poor people and the real impact that a lot of these measure have had.”

“There is a way for you to be tools of change about explaining what’s at stake,” Danjuma told the lawyers.

Pro bono is another area where lawyers can volunteer to help with elections. Gilda R. Daniels, associate professor of law at the University of Baltimore Law School and former deputy chief at the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, Voting Section, and litigation director at the Advancement Project, said she’s looking for attorneys to work with her. Advancement Project is a national organization working on voting rights, school-to-prison pipeline, education justice, policing and criminalization and immigrant justice.

She recommended that lawyers “educate, litigate and legislate.”

“We have to educate our communities, our families on what disenfranchising devices exist in our communities and how to overcome them,” she said.

Daniels urged the lawyers to become educated on the voting laws and the requirements for voter registration in their state and most of all to vote because there has been a resurgence of voter purges.

Parts of the Voting Rights Act are “still viable and useful,” she said, and although laws have been passed that allow more people to register and vote, there are still implementation laws on the books that prevent people from casting a ballot.

Cross-checks, resurgence of voter purges, student voting and new voting machines were also discussed.

The program was part of the Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice’s 2019-20 Fair Elections and Voting Rights Initiative. The next program will take place in April 2020, in conjunction with ABA Day and the section’s Spring Meeting in Washington, D.C.

To view the full program, click here.