The PBEye

Pro Bono As We See It
September 1, 2020

Voting for Racial Justice: How Pro Bono and Voting Rights Align

“My dear friends: Your vote is precious, almost sacred. It is the most powerful nonviolent tool we have to create a more perfect union.” –Rep. John Lewis

Voting is one of the most valued rights in America today, and as the Supreme Court noted more than a century ago, it is “preservative of all rights.” However, the battle for enfranchisement has been anything but straightforward. When America was founded, the right to vote was determined by the states and largely the exclusive province of white, property-owning men over the age of 21. It wasn’t until 1856 that all white men were given the right to vote, and it took another 14 years for men of color to gain the right to vote by law. However, laws are no better than their implementation, and our history is rich with examples of prejudicial barriers designed to keep eligible voters of color from the polls (e.g. poll taxes, literacy tests, and impersonation/intimidation) for generations after the U.S. Constitution was amended to proscribe racial discrimination at the state level regarding voting rights. Women didn’t gain the right to vote nationwide until 1920, followed by Native Americans, who were granted citizenship (and therefore the right to vote) with the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act in 1924, and finally Asian Americans in 1952. 

Voting activism found a long overdue victory with the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, which guaranteed the right to vote regardless of sex, race, religion, or education to all citizens over the age of 21. The 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA) eliminated literacy tests in the U.S. and provided for federal enforcement of voter registration and voting rights. Finally, in 1971, the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age from 21 to 18, a response to public outcry that 18-year-olds were old enough to die for their country but not old enough to cast their ballot.

 In 2013, the Supreme Court found in Shelby County v. Holder that a part of the Voting Rights Act—that required jurisdictions with a history of suppressing voting rights to seek preclearance from the U.S. Department of Justice prior to making changes in their election laws —was unconstitutional, which has led to voter suppression of minorities due to a massive-scale closing of polling places, among other practices, making it harder for minority and low-income communities to vote. Add the COVID-19 pandemic, which also disproportionately affects Black and Brown communities, to the existing voting system and voter participation is unlikely to be fairly reflective of those who are entitled to vote. 

As legal professionals, we are called to advocate for and uphold the right to vote, the linchpin to all other rights bestowed under law—whether that be mitigating the effects of burdensome voter ID laws by helping individuals, or advocating for voting-by-mail which has become increasingly popular in recent years and could be a critical alternative to in-person voting this fall.

Examples of Types of Pro Bono Opportunities relating to Voting Rights:

  • Assist voters with registration, including developing information on required information and obtaining necessary proof of identity and residency for applicable jurisdictions. 
  • Represent litigants challenging voter registration laws.
  • Counsel potential voters with respect to absentee and early voting opportunities.
  • Observe polls and assisting would-be voters seeking to lodge provisional ballots or encountering other difficulties in the voting process.   
  • Voter hotlines.
  • Voter education.
  • Represent litigants challenging gerrymandering practices.
  • Develop reports, talking points, facts sheets and state voter guides.
  • Assist with preparation and submission of testimony to state legislatures on voting matters.     
  • Conduct training and seminars for voting rights organization employees and volunteers.
  • Advise organizations engaging in canvassing and voter registration with respect to liability and other issues.
  • Aid in the corporate formation and development of governance documents for voter rights organizations.

In addition to pro bono efforts, each step of the voting process is important, so even small steps will make a significant impact. Helping individuals from underrepresented communities get registered to vote is a good first step. Currently, 39 states and D.C. allow for online voter registration. Unfortunately, registering to vote is not the only hurdle to actually casting a ballot.  Legal professionals can help with the voting process by manning hotlines designed to educate voters, acting as observers at local voting precincts to confirm proper procedures are followed, or by advising individuals with respects to their rights (e.g., which voting sites they may use, what forms of ID are sufficient and under what circumstances they may cast a provisional ballot) if they are turned away while trying to cast their ballot. There is a special need for such professionals who can speak other languages, especially in locations where translation services may be less available. Lawyers are encouraged to work with local and national leading organizations working directly on voting-related pro bono matters. 

The following is a short list of organizations with voting rights pro bono opportunities that illustrates the range of organizations working in this area [1]

  • Arab American Institute Established in 1985 and based in Washington, DC, AAI is a non-profit, nonpartisan national leadership organization created to nurture and encourage the direct participation of Arab Americans in political and civic life in the United States. Their #YallaVote is the foundation of the Institute’s grassroots voter mobilization and education campaign. With high concentrations of Arab Americans living in some of the largest and most politically contested states, they make a difference on issues that matter. 
  • Asian Americans Advancing Justice. Rooted in the dreams of immigrants and inspired by the promise of opportunity, Asian Americans Advancing Justice advocates for an America in which all Americans can benefit equally from, and contribute to, the American dream.  AAJC advocates for the restoration and enforcement of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), facilitates training, education, and advocacy around voter-related issues that affect Asian Americans like language assistance, voter suppression, and election reform, to strengthen all communities’ ability to participate in the democratic process. They also operate a hotline and work with individuals who have been subject to voter discrimination. To learn about getting involved, click here.
  • Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote (APIA Vote) runs a year-round hotline for constituents, particularly those of Asian or Pacific Islander descent, and needs volunteers who are fluent in languages such a Vietnamese, Mandarin, and Cantonese (among many others). They also do field volunteering at polls on the day of to ensure voters who may not speak English well/at all can access information in their native language.  To sign up, click here
  • Brennan Center for Justice. The Center works with dozens of lawyers from more than 30 law firms on a variety of projects that further litigation, research, and public advocacy efforts related to voting rights and other issues. To learn about opportunities to join in this work, click here.
  • The Center for Secure and Modern Elections supports bipartisan reforms at all levels of government and provides support to lawmakers, advocates, and businesses who share the goal of a modern democracy where all voters, regardless of party, can have their voice heard. They believe in small policy reforms that have big impacts on voter turnout, such as automatic voter registration updates with official change of address forms. They have also created a 50-state digital resource center to help ensure the secure functioning of the 2020 elections in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic.
  • Election Protection works a year-round hotline to ensure voters get the information they need to make an informed decision at the polls. They also have field programs the day of elections nationwide, where they send volunteers to the voting precincts to assist voters in person. These opportunities help ensure citizens have the knowledge and protection they need to vote and solve any problem that could arise at the polls. Sign up, here.
  • Fair Elections Center is a national, nonpartisan voting rights and election reform 501(c)(3) organization based in Washington, D.C. whose mission is to use litigation and advocacy to remove barriers to registration and voting, particularly those disenfranchising underrepresented and marginalized communities, and to improve election administration. To contact, email info@fairelectionscenter.org.
  • Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. The Committee is part of the Election Protection Coalition and has a Voting Rights Project. Through coordinated and integrated programs of litigation, voter protection, advocacy, and education, the Voting Rights Project has had a tremendous positive impact on communities of color and other traditionally disenfranchised populations. They litigate issues regarding voter registration, voter purges, barriers to voting, districting/gerrymandering, and suits against the federal government.
  • Rock the Vote is an organization designed by young people, for young people whose goal is to educate young people on the importance of voting and helping them register. This is an organization that lawyers can help both with their legal expertise and their vast network of communication. To volunteer, click here.
  • We The Action allows volunteer lawyers to help safeguard democracy by identifying critical election administration problems in key states, helping their partners register voters and recruit poll workers, powering large-scale voter protection efforts at polling places and call centers nationwide, and more, so that the voice of every eligible voter is heard. For a list of programs and to volunteer, click here.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of organizations or opportunities for lawyers to advocate for the right to vote and racial equity.  If you have any questions regarding pro bono opportunities, please contact PBI at www.probonoinst.org

Hat tip to PBI intern Samantha Hamilton for drafting this blog.


[1] **  The information contained within is for informational purposes only. The organizations listed have not been vetted or endorsed by Pro Bono Institute.  

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