President's Message

Law Day 2014 emphasizes the importance of the right to vote

Posted May 1, 2014 5:00 AM CDT
By James R. Silkenat

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Photo of James R. Silkenat by Marc Hauser.

Working to establish and protect every citizen's right to vote has been a central theme of American legal and civic history. The right to vote is the foundation of government by the people. When voters participate in free and fair elections, they reinforce the legitimacy of the rule of law.

This month, Law Day events across the country will emphasize the importance of the right to vote and the challenges we still face to ensure that all Americans can participate in our democracy. Each year, Law Day programs are conducted on May 1 and throughout the month by bar groups, courts, schools, community organizations and others who want to spread the important message of the crucial role of the rule of law and the legal process in protecting freedom and achieving justice.

Law Day has its roots in the ABA. The celebration was envisioned in 1957 by then-ABA President Charles Rhyne and established the following year by President Dwight Eisenhower. In 1961, Congress issued a joint resolution designating May 1 as the official Law Day.

This year's Law Day theme is as important as ever. In a nation governed by democratic principles, every vote is vital. When an eligible voter is deprived of the opportunity to cast a ballot, the harm is not only to that voter. It also undermines our government, which becomes that much less representative of the people.

Our nation's continuing problems with voting are well-documented. A recent report (PDF) of the ABA Standing Committee on Election Law noted numerous instances of long lines at the polls during the 2012 presidential election, with some voters waiting many hours to cast a ballot. Excessive delays were caused by poor planning, lack of alternative voting options, inadequate supply of voting machines and technology malfunctions. Additional factors included long and extensive ballots, sudden changes to voting laws, and lapses in poll worker training.

Other discriminatory efforts threaten to undermine the right to vote. While verification of voters' identification is necessary to protect the integrity of the election system, governments should avoid onerous procedures that bar legitimate citizens from the ballot box. Lawmakers and election authorities should provide for alternative verification procedures when, for instance, a voter does not have required photo ID due to social circumstance, illiteracy or disability.

Even when the right to vote exists, it can be diminished by politically drawn legislative districts that threaten to predetermine an election's outcome. The ABA therefore urges governments to assign the redistricting process for legislative districts to independent commissions with full citizen participation.

This year's Law Day occurs on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965. Referring to that law, President Lyndon B. Johnson observed: "Every American citizen must have an equal right to vote. There is no reason which can excuse the denial of that right. There is no duty which weighs more heavily on us than the duty we have to ensure that right."

The Voting Rights Act has given generations of Americans confidence that their right to vote will be protected. The ABA therefore commends Congress' bipartisan effort to enact the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014, which would provide commonsense remedies to reinvigorate the 1965 law's mission to prevent and dismantle discrimination in voting.

As we prepare for Law Day 2014, let us reflect on the challenges we face, and the work we must do, to ensure that all citizens have a chance to participate in civic life and the American experience through the ballot box. Our modern, mature democracy deserves nothing less.

The ABA is grateful to those who plan, produce and partake in Law Day activities. For more information, including resource materials and details about Law Day programs throughout the country, please visit the ABA's Law Day website.

This article originally appeared in the May 2014 issue of the ABA Journal with this headline: "Ballot Box Democracy: Law Day 2014 emphasizes the importance of the right to vote."

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