Huffpost Politics: Voter Suppression Is Happening Everywhere. This Institute Is Trying To Stop It.


Chad Dunn, an attorney and voting rights expert in Texas, was alerted to this significant reduction in early voting sites by a Democratic candidate in the area. He in turn notified attorneys at the Campaign Legal Center, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., focused on election reform. Three days before Christmas, CLC attorneys wrote a letter to the county’s election administrators arguing that its early voting plan would “have an adverse impact on black voters,” “burden their right to vote” and “hamper minority turnout,” since one of the two planned early voting locations was 25 miles away from Prairie View, and the other, closer location was inaccessible by public transit.

The attorneys who wrote the letter — Gerald Hebert, CLC’s executive director, and Danielle Lang, a legal fellow — urged Waller County commissioners to reconsider their decision not to place an early voting site in Prairie View. They cited Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits election practices that result “in a denial or abridgment of the right of any citizen... to vote on account of race or color.” They also pointed out that Waller County has resisted making it easy for A&M students to vote, and that the Department of Justice has intervened multiple times to prevent the county from disenfranchising students.

To combat this problem, civil rights groups are mobilizing to replace the power of Section 5. And they’re doing so with a novel new partnership. The American Constitution Society joined with the CLC in 2014 and with Georgetown Law last fall to found the Voting Rights Institute, a resource that’s the first of its kind in the nation.

The institute has three prongs. The ACS coordinates trainings for attorneys across the country to teach them how to litigate voting rights cases. The CLC does voting rights litigation and has populated the institute’s website with a brief bank of legal documents from past voting rights cases, to help attorneys doing the work. (Voters can also report complaints about their communities’ elections through the website.) And Georgetown Law students and professors are conducting research and filing briefs of their own.

The VRI was founded with the understanding that the nation’s major civil rights groups, like the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union, don’t have the bandwidth or financial resources to handle the slew of recent election changes invited by the Shelby County decision on their own.

“The Voting Rights Institute can play this role where no case is too large or too small. We want to make sure that we’re responding to every violation,” Lang said. “All voting is local, and we want to be able to be an organization that can be responsive to local problems with national expertise.”

The institute is already engaged in these sorts of smaller cases. Georgetown Law students and professors, for instance, are representing an attorney who lost a redistricting case in Mississippi last year. The attorney argued that Quitman County was packing black voters into a small number of precincts. Now, Quitman is trying to force the attorney to pay the county’s legal fees. An increasing number of jurisdictions are attempting to recover their fees by arguing that voting rights cases are frivolous; Hebert called this “a dangerous trend, because it will have a huge chilling effect” on individual lawyers who may fear bringing a voting rights case knowing they could be forced to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars if they lose.

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