By Lilly Calafell[i]
The right to … vote and to stand for election, is at the core of democratic governments based on the will of the people.[ii] This right is enshrined in Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and is cited as the bedrock of functioning democracies.[iii] Nevertheless, democracies are increasingly under threat of domestic and foreign efforts to undermine electoral processes.[iv]
In the United States, for example, both the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections were under threat and among the most highly contested due to overwhelming claims and evidence of foreign interference.[v] Unfortunately, however, this is not the first nor the last time that a democracy’s electoral processes will be challenged.[vi] Therefore, with local and midterm elections fast-approaching, our democracy needs an “all hands on deck” approach to ensure that the will of the people is what prevails.
Indeed, during the 2021 Legislative Forum, hosted by the Mitchell Hamline Journal of Public Policy and Practice, Minnesota state legislators and civil society all emphasized the need for citizen action as a way to safeguard our human right to freely and fairly elect our representatives. This article proposes three ways in which law students and attorneys can get involved and have a pivotal role in this effort: by (1) informing themselves and their communities about their voting rights and the impact their vote has on daily life; (2) participating in local election processes; and (3) speaking up against undue restrictions.
Get Smart – Spread the Word
According to the Harvard Political Review, a 2018 Johns Hopkins University study demonstrated that many Americans lack civic knowledge as it pertains to jurisdictional issues with about 25% of study participants not knowing whether federal or state governments were in charge of law enforcement and about 30% not knowing which government creates and enforces zoning laws.[vii] With this context in mind, it is crucial that as law students and attorneys, we step it up and serve as educators in our communities. In fact, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund’s President and director-counsel, Sherrilyn Ifill argues that lawyers have “an obligation to stand at the front of the line and to explain to the American public the importance of free and fair elections to our democracy.”[viii]
For example, the American Bar Association’s Human Rights Magazine finds that lawyers are well equipped to educate and offers this simple piece of advice: “find out your state’s registration process and deadlines and the particular challenges your state’s voters encounter. Then share what you learn with neighbors and friends.”[ix] I propose taking it a step further.
First, despite growing civil discourse around the area of politics, as law students and attorneys alike, we should aim to underscore the importance of voting as a matter of maintaining a fully functioning democracy. That is, if we take the political rhetoric out of the dialogue and instead focus on the thematic issue around our right to vote in our democracy, then we can have a much more meaningful dialogue. When the conversation is based on what brings us together as a people and not on the political talking point that we most identify with, the possibilities are endless. One way to achieve this is to empower communities by framing the act of voting as a civic duty to maintain a vibrant and functioning democracy and emphasizing that the act of voting ensures the power remains with the people, which can mobilize them to participate.
Second, it is crucial that – in our engagements – we underscore the importance of participating in both federal and local elections. In fact, it is local elections that give voters the greatest opportunity to have their voices heard.[x] Specifically, The Hill contributor, Becky Kipp, finds:
Local politics influence all of the decisions that have a direct influence on our day-to-day lives, from the laws we’re most worried about abiding by, to the streets we drive on and whether or not they’re riddled with potholes, to whether or not we’ll have to pay for plastic bags at the grocery store, and more.[xi]
Indeed, as a democratic republic, voting in the United States should not only be thought of as a civic duty during federal elections, but it should also be understood as a responsibility during every election cycle: local, state, and federal. Campus Elect posits that understanding the roles of each locally elected leader and their impact is critical if you want to influence choices that affect local communities.[xii] Making this a part of the discussion helps in ensuring that your community is empowered and ready to participate in all facets of the election process.
Finally, at the American Bar Association’s 2021 Hybrid Annual Meeting, President of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, John Yang, argues that lawyers hold a “privileged place in our society” and finds that many people look to [the legal community] to understand [voting rights].[xiii] Therefore, as law students and attorneys, you should feel empowered to use your platform and your legal wherewithal to educate your network and elevate the importance of voting, writ large. Many civic organizations, like 866ourvote and Voting Is Social Work provide Social Media Toolkits that you can leverage in your platforms. They can be found by visiting the linked websites, or by simply starting a search in Google.
In addition to getting smart about voting and spreading the word, there are growing cries in the legal community for stronger student and attorney involvement. That is, ABA President Refo says that “serving as a poll worker is integral to assuring a free and fair election … and lawyers are especially suited to help.”[xiv] But as law students and attorneys, is there more that can be done?
States like Minnesota and Virginia offer citizens the opportunity to serve, not just as poll workers, but as Election Judges and Officers of Elections, respectively. Minnesota defines election judges as “temporary, paid employees of local election officials trained to handle all aspects of voting at the polling place.[xv] Similarly, Virginia defines officers of elections as an individual serving “as part of a team that conducts elections at a polling place on Election Day,” tasked with conducting the election “fairly and lawfully, and to assist voters….”[xvi]
Ultimately, whether you’re serving as a poll worker, election judge, or officer of election, having an active role in the elections process is a great service to your community and helps to further promote our democracy.
As law students, we are taught how to read and interpret the law. In many respects, we are also trained to understand the impact the rule of law has on our society. But should we simply aim to read and interpret the law to try cases? Should our mandate not extend to be protectors of our democracy? Harvard Law School’s Clinical and Pro Bono program finds that “as legal professionals, we are called to advocate for and uphold the right to vote, the linchpin to all other rights bestowed under law.”[xvii]
Likewise, William Kresse argues that lawyers should step up and, as sworn members of our community, dedicate ourselves to being a part that upholds our system of justice by ensuring that it is a system that is free, fair, and open to everyone.[xviii] As such, I propose that we all take part in speaking up against undue voting restrictions by: (1) writing to the legislature; and (2) dedicate hours, pro bono, to organizations actively litigating voter suppression issues.
First, writing to your local congressman in support of increased voter access is one way that law students can speak up and make their voices heard. Far from falling on deaf ears, penning open letters to elected officials can show that their constituents are interested in a particular issue and makes a stronger impact rather than a simple phone call. Want to make an even bigger impact? Then connect with local civic organizations and have the letter signed by several constituents – there is power in numbers.
Second, the ABA Human Rights Magazine posits that attorneys [and arguably law students via volunteering or externships] can also “help others litigate and work with elected officials to legislate.”[xix] ABA encourages attorneys and law students to reach out “to help the attorneys and legislators in your state who are already on the front lines.”[xx] On their website, ABA lists organizations who are part of the “many organized efforts helping every voice be heard.”[xxi]
In closing, genuine elections are a necessary and fundamental component of an environment that protects and promotes human rights.[xxii] As a democratic republic, Americans play a critical role in preserving our democracy. Through action, like voting, we can all take a part in our elections process, but as attorneys and law students, especially, we should aim to be contributing members of our society by: (1) getting smart about voting and spreading the word; (2) participating in the elections process through working the polls and/or holding leadership positions within the polling place; and (3) speaking up and working to counter undue restrictions. We all have a meaningful role to play in the protection of our democracy; let us each play a part in strengthening and protecting our homeland.
[i] The author is a graduating student at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law, Policy Editor at the Journal of Public Policy and Practice, and a public servant. The views expressed in this article are entirely her own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Government. Further, no citations to civic organizations or programs shall be interpreted as an endorsement by the Mitchell Hamline Journal of Public Policy and Practice.
[ii] U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, OHCHR and elections, https://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Pages/HRElections.aspx. See also, Reynolds v. Sims, 377 U.S. 533, 555 (1964).
[iii] G.A. Res. 217 (III) A, Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Dec. 10, 1948), https://www.un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights [accessed 12 December 2021] (Article 21: “the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.. See also, G.A. Res. 2200 (XXI) A, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Mar. 23, 1976), https://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/ccpr.aspx (Article 25: “To vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors”).
[iv] Lawrence Norden and Derek Tisler, Addressing Insider Threats in Elections, Brennan Center for Justice (Dec. 8, 2021), https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/analysis-opinion/addressing-insider-threats-elections. See also, Fried, A., & Harris, D. B. (2020). In Suspense: Donald Trump’s Efforts to Undermine Public Trust in Democracy. Society, 57(5), 527–533. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12115-020-00526-y. See also, National Intelligence Council, Intelligence Community Assessment: Foreign Threats to the 2020 US Federal Elections (Mar. 10, 2021), https://www.dni.gov/files/ODNI/documents/assessments/ICA-declass-16MAR21.pdf. See also, Presidential Statement on Nicaragua’s Sham Elections, 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/11/07/statement-by-president-joseph-r-biden-jr-on-nicaraguas-sham-elections/. See also, Sarah Repucci ET AL., Democracy under Siege, Freedom House (last visited Dec. 27, 2021), https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2021/democracy-under-siege
[v] S. REP. NO. 116-XX (2020), https://www.intelligence.senate.gov/sites/default/files/documents/Report_Volume1.pdf. See also, Report on the Investigation Into Russian Interference In The 2016 Presidential Election, Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III, March 2019. See also, Young Mie Kim, New Evidence Shows How Russia’s Election Interference Has Gotten More Brazen, Brennan Center for Justice (Mar. 5, 2020), https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/analysis-opinion/new-evidence-shows-how-russias-election-interference-has-gotten-more
[vi] Sarah Pruitt, 8 Most Contentious US Presidential Elections, History (updated Oct. 27, 2020), https://www.history.com/news/most-contentious-u-s-presidential-elections.
[vii] Matthew Gross, The Importance of Local Elections, Harvard Political Review (Nov. 24, 2020), https://harvardpolitics.com/the-importance-of-local-elections/
[viii] How U.S. voting rights are under attack – and your help is needed, American Bar Association (Aug. 11, 2021), https://www.americanbar.org/news/abanews/aba-news-archives/2021/08/how-u-s–voting-rights-are-under-attack—and-your-help-is-neede/
[ix] Claire L. Parins, How to Help Protect Our Elections and Get Out the Vote, American Bar Association (Feb. 9, 2020), https://www.americanbar.org/groups/crsj/publications/human_rights_magazine_home/voting-rights/how-to-help-protect-our-elections-and-get-out-the-vote/
[x] Becky Kip, Voting for mayor is more important than voting for president, The Hill Blog (Oct. 6, 2016), https://thehill.com/blogs/pundits-blog/state-local-politics/299565-voting-for-mayor-is-more-important-than-voting-for
[xii] Why Local Elections Matter, Campus Elect (last visited Dec. 28, 2021), https://campuselect.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/local_office_description-an_explainer.pdf (stating that America has 19,000 cities, towns, and villages with different governmental structures and that all elect officials to carry out 3 government functions: Executive, Legislative and Legal. The Mayor or City Manager implements the Executive functions; the City Council or Commissioners implement Legislative; and the District Attorney or City Attorney implement Legal functions.)
[xiii] American Bar Association, supra note viii.
[xiv] American Bar Association, ABA joins NASS and NASED to mobilize lawyers as poll workers for Election Day (Aug. 26, 2020), https://www.americanbar.org/news/abanews/aba-news-archives/2020/08/aba-joins-nass-and-nased-to-mobilize-lawyers-as-poll-workers-for/
[xv] Become an Election Judge, Office of the Minnesota Secretary of State (last visited Dec. 27, 2021), https://www.sos.state.mn.us/elections-voting/get-involved/become-an-election-judge/
[xvi] Officer of Elections, Virginia Department of Elections (last visited Dec. 27, 2021), https://www.elections.virginia.gov/officer-of-elections/
[xvii] Election Protection & Voting Rights Volunteer Opportunities (last visited Dec. 11, 2021), https://hls.harvard.edu/dept/clinical/election-protection-voting-rights-volunteer-opportunities/
[xviii] American Bar Association, supra note viii.
[xix] American Bar Association, supra note ix.
[xxii] U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, supra note ii.