The 2014 midterm election is quickly approaching and the struggle to protect voting rights is ongoing. Since last year, when the U.S. Supreme Court weakened enforcement of the Voting Rights Act with its decision in Shelby County v. Holder, a number of states have moved forward with restrictive voter identification laws, laws impeding voter registration, cutbacks on early voting (which could exacerbate the problem of long lines on Election Day), and laws making it more difficult to restore voting rights to those with past criminal convictions.
These restrictions create hurdles to the ballot box that disproportionately affect low-income, minority, college-age, and elderly voters. According to a recent report issued by the Brennan Center for Justice, new voting restrictions could potentially be in place in 22 states, meaning that voters in nearly half the country could find it harder to cast a ballot in this year’s election than they did in 2010.
As we near this crucial election, a number of Law Firm Pro Bono Project Member Firms and Challenge® Signatories are devoting significant time and resources to election-related pro bono work. A few noteworthy examples include:
• Arnold & Porter*† and the Advancement Project recently scored a major victory for voting rights, in the first Voting Rights Act case to go to trial after the Supreme Court’s Shelby County decision, when a federal judge in Wisconsin ruled that a 2011 law requiring voters to show photo identification before casting a ballot violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. The decision represents the first time that a state voter ID law has been found to violate Section 2. The judge found that Wisconsin’s voter ID law unfairly discriminates against black and Latino voters, who lack photo identification and the necessary documents to obtain them far more often than white voters do and therefore would be disproportionately prevented from voting. State officials are pursuing an appeal.
• Kirkland & Ellis*† and the Brennan Center represent the League of Women Voters of the United States in a lawsuit opposing state laws in Arizona and Illinois that require documentary proof of citizenship to register to vote. The League argues that such requirements harm its nonpartisan voter registration efforts and undermine its core mission of promoting voter participation. A number of other public interest organizations and pro bono law firms are involved in this litigation. Oral argument is scheduled for August.
• In the wake of Shelby County, Ballard Spahr*† has worked with The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law to examine voting rights compliance and enforcement. The firm researched voting rights issues in several key states and also provided logistical support as the Lawyers’ Committee conducted hearings across the country. Similarly, Simpson Thacher & Bartlett* assisted the Lawyers’ Committee with their response to Shelby County by drafting two reports on voting rights compliance and enforcement.
Elections and the legal issues that surround them are fertile grounds for lawyers, law firms, and legal departments looking to develop or expand their pro bono practice. Pro bono lawyers are at the forefront of non-partisan legal efforts during and in-between major national and local election cycles to ensure that all eligible voters have equal access to the ballot box and to cure legal flaws in the election system which threaten the accuracy and legitimacy of the voting process.
To learn more about how pro bono lawyers can play an important role on Election Day and all year round, listen to the on-demand version of our webinar “Pro Bono in Practice: Elections.” CLE credit is available for this program in many states. Registration is free for Law Firm Project Member Firms. Please contact Law Firm Project Assistant Eva Richardson for registration information or for assistance with becoming a Member.
In addition, be sure to check out the Law Firm Project’s popular publication Facing the Challenges of Citizenship: Election-Related Pro Bono Opportunities. Visit our Resource Clearinghouse to download the publication, which is free for Law Firm Project Members and available to all others for purchase.
* denotes a Signatory to the Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge®
† denotes a Member of the Law Firm Pro Bono Project