Voting is a contentious issue in the 2016 presidential election. Lawyers can play a strong role in preserving voters’ rights at the polls.
Election Law Has Become Chaotic
While many take a citizen’s right to cast a ballot for granted, this simple act has been the focus of intense legislation and litigation for decades. Issues like voter identification requirements, voter registration, early voting, and criminal records have created confusion and concern as election day gets closer.
However, voting rights are not likely to simplify quickly as politicians and courts continue to wrestle over who can vote and when.
To get a sense of how frantic this area of law has become, take a look at what’s been going on (these are just a handful of examples):
- Since 2000, the number of state legislatures enacting voter ID laws went from 14 to 32.
- In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act preventing pre-emptive challenges to potentially racially discriminatory voting law changes. (Shelby Cnty. v. Holder, 133 S. Ct. 2612, 186 L.Ed.2d 651, 81 USLW 4572 (2013).) Since then, the NAACP has found that six former preclearance states have closed registration or polling places, making it harder for minorities to vote. Local jurisdictions in six more redrew districts or changed election rules in ways that diluted minorities’ votes.
- In 2016, Texas, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Kansas, and North Dakota all had voter ID and proof-of-citizenship laws struck down by courts as racially discriminatory. These five rulings came out within 2 weeks of each other.
- In Ohio, judges ruled that the state couldn’t eliminate a week of early voting or change laws governing how absentee and provisional ballots are counted.
- In Virginia, the governor lost a lawsuit regarding whether he could restore voting rights to hundreds of thousands of felons at once.
- In Florida, a federal judge ordered voter registration deadlines to be extended due to Hurricane Matthew disrupting registration & naturalization activities, but a court in Georgia declined to do the same due to the start of early voting.
All these changes and more have caused enormous confusion among likely voters. The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a leading voting-rights advocacy group, reported that their election hotline has already fielded more than 22,000 questions and complaints from voters in 2016, ten times the number they received in 2012’s presidential election. People don’t know whether they can vote, where they need to go to vote, when voting starts, and what they need to bring with them to the polls.
Not helping with the confusion is one presidential candidate’s efforts to incite so-called “ballot security” activities, such as poll watching. This candidate is telling supporters to gather friends and the politically like-minded to monitor voting in “certain places.” This call to disrupt voting directly conflicts with a 1982 consent decree aimed at the Republican National Committee, where they agreed to stop such actions. It remains in force to this day. In other words, you’ve a candidate seemingly encouraging supporters to break the law.
Lawyers Can Help Voters on Election Day
When the law is in flux and passions are high, lawyers can play a key role in preserving voters’ rights.
The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law is a non-partisan, non-profit organization committed to securing equal justice for all through the rule of law. They are actively seeking lawyers and law student volunteers. Lawyers can help with their Election Protection campaign in two ways:
- Hotline Volunteer: Answer voters’ questions and respond to issues though their 1-866-OUR-VOTE hotline.
- Legal Field Volunteer: Respond to and monitor voting problems at the polls in targeted locations as they arise.
Training is provided for both volunteer positions.
The focus of the Election Protection campaign is the voter—not any particular political race—and volunteers help provide guidance and information to any American seeking it. Help is provided regardless for whom that voter is casting a ballot.
If you’re seeking a partisan method of participation, one presidential candidate is specifically courting lawyer volunteers. Hillary Clinton is asking for lawyers and law students to volunteer for her Hillary for America Victory Counsel. Much like the Election Protection campaign, volunteers would serve as poll observers and staff hotlines answering questions from voters having difficulties voting. (They might also feed snacks to celebrities.)
With voter registration closing and early voting happening even as court challenges continue, the need for lawyers to help protect voters’ rights will only increase. Lawyers have a critical role to play in informing and aiding those struggling to participate in their democracy’s most basic action – voting.
Are you planning to volunteer pro bono support for voters? Tell us how you’re donating time in the comments.