By Leslie E. John, Partner at Ballard Spahr and President of the Philadelphia Bar Foundation.
The late civil rights champion and Georgia Congressman John Lewis said, “The right to vote is precious, almost sacred. It is the most powerful nonviolent tool or instrument in a democratic society. We must use it.” The upcoming election should be an opportunity for each of us to use this powerful tool. As lawyers, it is our obligation to ensure that every citizen has that opportunity, even during these uncertain and unprecedented times.
In this year’s primary election, 1.5 million Pennsylvanians voted by mail, and it is anticipated that many people will choose to vote by mail in November as well. Some elected officials have linked voter fraud to mail-in voting. The nonpartisan law and policy institute, Brennan Center for Justice, and many other researchers report that ballot fraud by mail is extremely rare. Conversely, of great concern are voter suppression activities that threaten to disenfranchise voters. According to the ACLU, voter suppression measures range from the seemingly innocuous (voter ID laws and cuts to early voting) to mass purges of voter rolls and systemic exclusion. These activities disproportionately impact already marginalized communities.
It is critical to the health of our democracy that voting is accessible to all Pennsylvanians this November. Organizations across the Commonwealth, including the Bar Foundation’s nonprofit partners, are fighting for voter rights. To highlight just a few of those efforts:
• As a result of a lawsuit filed by Disability Rights Pennsylvania and co-counsel, Brown Goldstein & Levy, the Pennsylvania Department of State must provide a process for visually-impaired voters to complete an absentee or mail-in ballot online. These voters will be able to print the ballot at home and deliver it to their county elections office for the upcoming general election.
• The Philadelphia Inquirer published an opinion piece authored by Renee Chenault Fattah and Karen Buck of SeniorLAW Center titled, “7 reforms that would make it easier for everyone to vote in Pennsylvania.” The article outlines recommendations with a particular focus on older people and people of color who are at a heightened risk of suffering severe health consequences from COVID-19.
• The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania (ACLU-PA), the Public Interest Law Center, the ACLU Voting Rights Project, Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and the law firm WilmerHale, seek to intervene in a voting-related suit against the Commonwealth and all 67 counties. The lawsuit challenges election administration practices, including the use of drop boxes for Pennsylvanians who vote by mail.
• The ACLU-PA, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, and Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP, filed a motion to intervene in a federal lawsuit that would force three PA counties to remove thousands of eligible voters from the voting rolls.
• Dechert LLP, one of the Bar Foundation’s 2020 Pro Bono Award recipients, filed a lawsuit that challenges a number of PA election practices deemed unsafe and unequal in the pandemic, including impractical mail-in ballot procedures and inaccessible polling locations.
I strongly encourage you to check your own voter registration status at www.votespa.com and to share information about the importance of voting with family, friends, and colleagues. Pennsylvania’s Constitution guarantees free and fair elections. Each one of us can help ensure equal protection for voters in 2020.
Quoting Representative Lewis again, “Freedom is not a state; it is an act. It is not some enchanted garden perched high on a distant plateau where we can finally sit down and rest. Freedom is the continuous action we all must take, and each generation must do its part to create an even more fair, more just society.” Voting is just one part of that action, and it is integral to safeguarding justice for all.