Tackling the Latest in Election Law and Voting Rights
With the 2008 election season in full swing, access to the polls and the fair treatment of voters have become hot topics, particularly as voter turnout reaches record numbers. In response, the ABA Section of State and Local Government Law, along with several other entities, sponsored the Friday panel, “Modern American Election Law and Voting Rights,” at the ABA Midyear Meeting in Los Angeles.
The panel answered questions concerning the election process for local practitioners and educated attendees on the best ways to represent a diverse population at the polls.
“The ability and access to the vote is a fundamental right that is protected by both state and federal law. It is important that we, as lawyers, are ready for the challenges and triumphs that this election season will bring,” stated moderator and Section chair Benjamin E. Griffith.
The panel specifically focused on the problems facing non-English speaking voters. Many of them report being denied assistance at the polls or discriminated against by hostile poll workers. Panelists cited examples in such diverse communities as Queens, New York and West Palm Beach, Fla. The effects of institutional racism can still be felt in every phase of the electoral process, Griffith stressed.
The problems facing minority voters are increasingly evident because of the large influx of non-English speaking voters since the United States Census was taken in 2000. In fact, the largest Census growth to date occurred between 1990 and 2000. There are an estimated 47 million who do not speak English at home and their numbers
continue to accelerate.
Panelists also provided overview of the Voting Rights Act, giving special attention to two key provisions, Section 203 and Section 5, which are considered the most effective weapons in the fight to attack voting discrimination.Section 203 protects the voting rights of language minorities and Section 5—also known as“pre-clearance”—ensures that jurisdictions with a significant history of voting violations, adhere to proper voting practices.
“Section 5 has opened the door and closed the gap on minority community participation. There is a vibrant political process because of Section 5,” said Kristin Clarke of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.
Looking forward to 2008, panelists speculated there would be a record turnout at the polls, but that non-compliance with the Voting Rights Act would likely continue. Panelists lamented the lack of materials to help those in need and expressed the need for informed election officials to ensure full access.
In addition to Griffith and Clarke, other panelists included Terry Ao from the Asian American Justice Center in Washington, D.C. and Jocelyn Benson, a professor at Wayne State University Law School, Detroit, Michigan.
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