August 8, 2016

Private: Law Schools Can and Must Help Fix Election Day

Beau Tremitiere, Guest Post, Voting Rights

by Beau Tremitiere, Co-Chair of Election RAVE Campaign, a nonpartisan initiative to increase electoral participation of law students and faculty; ACS Next Generation Leader; and Editor-in-Chief of the Northwestern University Law Review. 

Voting rights advocates are rejoicing in the wake of recent rulings striking down restrictive voting laws in Wisconsin, Texas, North Dakota, Kansas and North Carolina. And rightfully so—even ignoring the invidious nature of such intentional and targeted discrimination, these and similar measures threaten to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of voters. Such absurd and pointless restrictions have no place in our republican democracy: it is encouraging to see, finally, a forceful rejection of the flawed premise motivating the Supreme Court’s disastrous Shelby County v. Holder ruling in 2013. Unlike alleged voter fraud, voter suppression is real and rampant, and if the courts abdicate their duty to stand up for the underrepresented, pernicious state and local officials will seize the opportunity to keep them down. 

Yet, at best, these victories address mere symptoms of deeper systemic problems, and at worst, they may prove hollow absent meaningful and concerted action. Voting rights on paper are worth little unless we the people, and especially those of us in the legal profession, ensure that they’re enforced before and on Election Day. Speedy and competent poll workers are needed to prevent long lines from deterring time-pressed voters, and diligent election monitors are needed to detect foul play and correct honest mistakes. Moreover, the obstacles to full and informed voter participation extend well beyond new voter ID laws, selective purges of registration rolls, and targeted poll closures. Even in the record-breaking 2008 election, well before many of today’s most egregious voting restrictions were put into place, nearly four out of 10 eligible voters—more than 80 million Americans—did not cast their ballots. During the 2014 midterms, turnout among voters under 44 years of age was less than 29 percent. There are myriad reasons for our embarrassingly low electoral participation, but the obvious and possibly most significant one is that we hold our elections in the middle of the week, when most Americans are either at work or in the classroom.

While complex issues rarely give way to simple solutions, let’s try one on for size: every law school in the country should cancel classes on Election Day this fall and encourage students and faculty to both cast their ballots and serve as volunteers as the polls. Tens of thousands of students and professors—many of whom are contributors for the measly 29 percent turnout last election—would be liberated from one day’s duties to actually participate in the democratic system they spend hours each day dissecting and critiquing. Polling stations would have a surplus of educated, enthusiastic volunteers to manage stressful and complex electronic voting systems, provisional ballot requirements, and residency disputes. The election will be under the watchful eye of monitors trained in the law, guaranteeing the fair and honest results we deserve. And, just as importantly, law schools would send a message: Election Day matters. Voting matters. If law schools can carve out one day for democracy each year, they’ll set a much-needed example for our colleges, our small businesses, and our big employers.

Fortunately, progress has already begun: Northwestern Law has canceled classes and rolled out registration and volunteer programs for Election Day 2016 after Northwestern’s administration and faculty enthusiastically embraced these ideas and students readily agreed to start school a day early to accommodate the changes. Many other law schools are looking to follow suit. It’s about time.