Law school panel discusses voting rights

Krystal Miller and Jacklyn Pellegrino

Advocates, activists, engagement strategists and elected officials discussed potential threats to voting rights at a symposium hosted by Quinnipiac University’s School of Law on Oct. 28. 

Over 380 attended the event with several panelists including state Rep. Randal Gaines of Louisiana and Rep. Terri Sewell, Alabama’s first Black congresswoman.

The John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2021 that Sewell introduced was heavily discussed throughout the event. The bill is meant to restore and strengthen the Voting Rights Act of 1965. 

Connor Lawless

The bill’s main goal is to give the federal government power to oversee state voting laws to prevent discrimination and will require officials to publicly announce all voting changes at least 180 days before an election. 

The U.S. House of Representatives passed the bill in August by a vote margin of 219-212, but it still needs approval by the Senate before President Joe Biden can sign it into law. 

The 1965 act has been weakened over the last decade by the two U.S. Supreme Court decisions of Shelby County v. Holder and Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee, restricting future voting access. 

Two U.S. Supreme Court decisions have weakened the 1965 act. The Shelby County v. Holder decision ended the rule that required jurisdictions with histories of racial discrimination in their voting practices to get approval from the Department of Justice or a federal judge to make any changes to voting regulations. The Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee decision outlawed out-of-precinct voting and ballot collection. 

Gaines emphasized how the 2021 Voting Rights Bill will help the regression of voting rights of minorities. 

“We are currently witnessing the most aggressive pushback against African American voting rights that we have seen in the last 50 years,” Gaines said. “Particularly a pushback against African American political progress.”

We are currently witnessing the most aggressive pushback against African American voting rights that we have seen in the last 50 years.

— Randal Gaines, Louisiana House of Representatives member

When the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was ended in July 2013, eight states sent notice to pass voting laws that were previously outlawed by the act. Gaines said there are now no protective provisions to protect minority voting interests. 

“This year alone, in 2021, more than 400 bills were passed by 49 states attempting to pass obstructive and restrictive voting laws that particularly target minorities or targeting voting patterns of minorities,” Gaines said. 

In Georgia, a law enacted in March prevents proactively sending mail ballot applications to voters, requires voters to submit identification with their application and shortens the time frame for the application. Some states, including Georgia, have restrictions on giving food or water to people in line for voting.  

Sewell, who represents Alabama’s seventh congressional district which includes Birmingham, Montgomery, Tuscaloosa and Selma, spoke about her relationship with the late John Lewis. Lewis was a civil rights activist and former U.S. representative who helped pass the original 1965 voting rights law. This year’s bill will be named after him to honor his work fighting against inequality. 

“If you had told me when I was a little girl that I would grow up to become Alabama’s first Black congresswoman, I would’ve said ‘no,’” Sewell said. “But, if you had told me that I would have the opportunity to call John Lewis my colleague and my dear friend and mentor, I would have definitely said ‘no.’”

Sewell said though she gets to represent her hometown, that representation is not just about protecting and securing more resources and opportunities for people. She said it is also about protecting the legacy of Alabama’s seventh congressional district.

“We need people to get out and vote, volunteer, organize, turn out and elect officials that will do the right thing,” Sewell said. “Not officials that will put up barriers but officials that will actually make it easier to access the ballot box. Our vote is our voice in this representative democracy, and no one’s voice should be silenced.” 

Panelist Rhonda Briggins, the co-founder and board member of Vote Run Lead, a nonprofit organization that trains women to run for political office, said her organization has reached over 36,000 women across the U.S. In December 2016, she was elected as the first female African American president of the Georgia Transit Association.

We’ve had so many things coming against (minorities), so this is not the first challenge to us in our communities and so yes, they are trying to suppress our vote,” Briggins said.

Briggins said educating the public about their rights and on the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act is important to get people to vote.

“We’re not going to let our community be discouraged,” Briggins said. “We’re going to stand hand in hand with them, because we must vote, and they must have the right to exercise that right to vote.” 

Dov Wilker, regional director of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and national director for Black Jewish Relations, said every level of government is responsible for using their voices to encourage voting. He said people should engage with people across the political spectrum, because everyone has a vote.

“One of the things we always have to remember is that advocacy is about engagement and about sharing your viewpoints,” Wilker said.