President's Message

ABA’s election programs aim to ensure all Americans can participate in our democracy

Posted Nov 1, 2013 4:00 AM CDT
By James R. Silkenat

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Photo of James R. Silkenat by Marc Hauser.

As Americans go to the polls this month, they will exercise the fundamental right that supports all other rights and responsibilities in our representative democracy. By participating in free and fair elections, voters will also reinforce the legitimacy of the rule of law. This is why the American Bar Association regularly mobilizes lawyers to ensure that the nation’s election laws and practices permit the broadest, least restrictive access to the ballot box.

The need for advocacy and action is as acute as ever. As recounted in a recent report of the ABA Standing Committee on Election Law, long lines at the polls were common during the 2012 presidential election. Some voters waited more than two hours to cast a ballot. According to the report, the main factors leading to voting wait times were poor planning, lack of alternative voting options, inadequate supply of voting machines and technology malfunctions. Also cited were long and extensive ballots, sudden changes to voting laws, lapses in poll worker training and misinformed voters.

Of course, problems with voting have not been limited to the most recent presidential election. Over the years, such problems have created excessive burdens on citizens who seek to participate in the nation’s civic life. Widespread administrative glitches with elections and unnecessary barriers to the polls are unacceptable in a modern, mature democracy like the United States.

The ABA’s election reform work is nonpartisan. Our efforts are largely informed by the Standing Committee on Election Law, whose election law experts are balanced between Republicans and Democrats. The ABA does not have a political action committee and does not support candidates or parties.

The committee develops initiatives and policies with other ABA member groups that have expertise in election issues, such as the sections of Administrative Law and Regulatory Practice, State and Local Government Law, and Individual Rights and Responsibilities. The committee also collaborates with the Government and Public Sector Lawyers Division and the Division for Public Education.

With such broad-based input, the ABA House of Delegates has adopted a diverse body of voting-related policy, allowing the association to advocate for reform. For example, the ABA’s Election Administration Guidelines and Commentary cover a broad range of topics that can be applied in all jurisdictions, including voter education, registration, provisional balloting and postelection issues.

The ABA also encourages lawyers to volunteer their oversight services at the polls. We urge legal employers to allow time spent by lawyers as official poll workers to qualify as pro bono or community service hours.

The ABA has also regularly called for reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act, which consistently had the support of large congressional majorities. After the U.S. Supreme Court last term overturned a key element of the historic civil rights law, the House of Delegates urged Congress to reinvigorate the act so that its protections would continue, while passing constitutional muster.

The Standing Committee on Election Law will soon release a white paper that will set forth opportunities to simplify the election process, offer best practices for states to implement, and encourage the broadest possible access to the ballot box for American voters.

As the committee expands on its white paper with a national study of election reform, it is surveying ABA members to determine which electoral issues to prioritize. The survey, which I encourage you to complete at ambar.org/lawyercitizen, aims to identify election administrators and state and local bar leaders who can offer ideas to the study, and support its implementation.

The ABA’s long-standing and now re-energized commitment to election reform is reflected in our 2014 Law Day theme, “American Democracy and the Rule of Law: Why Every Vote Matters.” With this theme, bar associations and community groups nationwide will produce public education programs in May that underscore the importance of the right to vote.

In the meantime, we must acknowledge the challenges we still face, and the work we must do, to ensure that all Americans can participate in our democracy.

This article originally appeared in the November 2013 issue of the ABA Journal with this headline: "Every Vote Matters: ABA programs aim to ensure all Americans can participate in our democracy."

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