Around the Country, Liman Fellows Work for Democracy
As the country prepares for a presidential election next fall, this year's election on Nov. 7 gives voters across the country a chance to elect representatives to federal, state, and local offices. Public confidence in democratic systems relies on the assurance that every vote counts, but today, the integrity and durability of the country’s democratic process are frequently at issue. Many current and former Liman Fellows are working to meet these challenges, some seeking office and others trying to protect elections. Here is a sampling of their work from the Arthur Liman Center for Public Interest Law.
Running For Office in Washington State
Jorge Barón ’03, who held a Liman Fellowship in 2005, recently stepped down after 15 years as executive director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project and decided to run for office to become a member of the King County Council in Washington State. With three people vying for the nomination for a seat representing part of Seattle, Barón secured 50.66 percent of the vote in the Aug. 1 primary to be on the Nov. 7 ballot for the District 4 seat. His candidacy centers on racial justice and progressive funding of public services so as to enhance the well-being of all members of the community.
In Barón’s view, King County needs to improve its electoral policies.
“While we’ve made some progress on voting issues, we’re still seeing the need to make further changes here locally,” he said. “I know from a number of people that individuals are frustrated and giving up on voting, as if it doesn’t matter, nobody’s going to do anything. I think increasing voter turnout is important.”
On the upside, Barón described Washington as having “a very smart system of voting with mail-in voting. It is so convenient. We can see our good fortune here when we watch the news of the lines at other places, where people had to take that time off from work to vote. I am grateful that this important reform has been put into practice.”
Barón hopes his candidacy can be one route to increasing voter participation among underrepresented communities.
“If elected, I will be the first person of color serving in the King County Council for my district,” Barón said. “And, while Latinos are about 14% of the population, if elected, I will be the first Latino serving on the King County Council. There’s been only one other person of color on the Council in the last 25 years.”
UPDATE, Nov. 9: Barón won the seat with 57 percent of the vote. He campaigned on his commitment to equity and justice to the King County Council, and promised to include investments to improve public safety, climate resilience initiatives, affordable childcare and a robust transportation system, among others.
Getting Elected in Alaska
Another former Liman Fellow who has sought public office is Forrest Dunbar ’12, now serving in the Alaska State Senate. Dunbar recalls that his 2012 Liman Fellowship at the Alaska Office of Public Advocacy helped him to launch his first run for office the following year: a campaign for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Earning 41% of the vote, he narrowly lost that race in 2014. Dunbar was then elected to the Anchorage Assembly in 2016 and, in 2022, successfully ran for the state senate seat he now holds.
Throughout his career, Dunbar has pursued changes to expand voting rights.
“In Alaska, we’ve had a number of innovations like automatic voter registration, ranked-choice voting, and vote by mail, at least in Anchorage, our biggest city,” Dunbar pointed out. “All those reforms happened since 2016.”
Dunbar noted the risks of setbacks, including efforts to repeal the “automatic” voter registration he helped to enact in 2016.
“Right now, we’re in a stage of trying to get things to work and prevent bad-faith actors from breaking up the innovations,” he said. “My experience and that of others involved in getting the automatic registration law passed is that not all key actors have been supportive and that the actual implementation of it has been flawed.”
Protecting Voting Rights in the South
A number of former Liman Fellows are also working on voting rights issues. One of them is Joe Schottenfeld ’19, who joined the NAACP as an Assistant General Counsel after working with the organization as a Liman Fellow from 2020 to 2022.
In the South, where Schottenfeld has focused his efforts, the problems for Black voters are acute. In April 2023, Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves signed into law a novel provision, S.B. 2343, which brings the entire city of Jackson under the jurisdiction of the state-run Capitol Police. Reeves also enacted H.B. 1020, which created a new court to hear and determine all preliminary matters and criminal matters within the district including Jackson. This bill empowers the state Supreme Court to appoint an unelected judge to preside over that new court and authorizes the appointment of new, unelected circuit judges to the Seventh Circuit Court District in Hinds County.
“I’ve been working with a great litigation team to challenge the legislation that Mississippi passed seeking to strip Hinds County and Jackson residents of their right to choose many of the people who judge them and who operate the criminal legal system,” Schottenfeld said.
He noted that the population in both Hinds County and the city of Jackson is disproportionately Black and that Jackson is more than 80% Black.
“There’s little doubt that the legislation was enacted to take away local control from Jackson’s residents and from the elected Black leaders and vest it in other state actors, namely the chief justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court,” he said.
The NAACP, joined by citizens of Jackson, has filed a lawsuit alleging violations of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, so as to protect the rights of the County’s residents to choose who judges them.”
Efforts to undercut democratic participation are aimed not only at citizens but also at community groups.
“There’s been a wave of voter suppression that targets voters and organizations that try to help people vote, like the NAACP,” Schottenfeld said. “When people are struggling to vote or they’re facing long lines or hostile people, it is critical to have assistance from community-based groups to stand with them and help them exercise their political power. The struggle now is twofold: to secure voting rights and to make them real on the ground.”
During the 2022 midterm election, Evan Walker-Wells ’22 was a Liman Fellow at the NAACP Office of General Counsel, working from Atlanta. Walker-Wells worked with Schottenfeld, assisting with voter protection work around the country.
“The general election and the runoff were my first focus, as access to voting is central to the NAACP’s concerns that intersect with its commitments to economic security, racial justice, and eviction prevention,” Walker-Wells said.
After the 2020 election, Georgia and other states passed laws to make it easier for individuals to challenge other people’s voter registration. Those laws permit registered voters to challenge other voters’ eligibility, which could result in cutting eligible individuals from the voting rolls. Some individuals challenged the votes of more than 10,000 people, Walker-Wells said.
“Our office was working with partners to limit these harms,” he explained.
There’s just so much that could be improved through federal action that advocates need to continue to try to push for it.”
— Evan Walker-Wells ’22
Walker-Wells remains hopeful that Congress will enact legislation to strengthen federal protections for voters nationwide. One example is the proposed John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. The legislation would modernize and strengthen the 1965 Voting Rights Act and counter the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling that weakened its protections. Named for the late civil rights leader and Congress member, the act passed the House of Representatives and failed in the Senate in 2021. It was re-introduced in the House by Rep. Terri Sewell in September.
“The John Lewis Act would make it easier for many people, including Black voters, tribal nation members who live on reservations, and others to vote in federal and state elections,” Walker-Wells said. “There’s just so much that could be improved through federal action that advocates need to continue to try to push for it.”
In Connecticut, Advancing Rights of Voters Behind Bars
The difference between the legal right to vote and how it is implemented has been a central research concern of the Liman Center. Under current Connecticut law, people in detention before trial or with low-level charges are eligible to vote and they can do so by casting an absentee ballot. In practice, however, few incarcerated people vote because ballots are so difficult to obtain and return, Liman researchers have found.
Before the 2020 election, the Liman Center launched a project on voting while incarcerated in Connecticut, an undertaking led by former Senior Liman Fellow in Residence Zal Shroff and former Liman Director Anna VanCleave. Students sought to identify eligible voters Connecticut jails in prisons and provide them with information on registering to vote and requesting absentee ballots. Students later testified about the experience before lawmakers. According to May 2021 New Haven Register op-ed co-authored by Liman partners, incarcerated voters “face administrative complexities, delays, and information gaps that stand in the way of getting their ballots cast.”
Advancing this project, Liman Director Jennifer Taylor '10 led a team of students this year to document the experiences of eligible voters held in Connecticut jails and prisons during the 2022 election. They found that more than 3,000 people incarcerated in Connecticut at the time of the November 2022 election were eligible to vote, usually because they were held pre-trial and had not been convicted, Taylor explained. In addition, she said, more than 1,200 of those 3,000 people were registered to vote on election day.
“By building upon this research, we plan to support a coalition effort to continue to press Connecticut lawmakers and officials to prioritize closing the gap between incarcerated people’s right to vote and their actual ability to do so,” Taylor said.
The research was drawn from data obtained through the use of a computer program developed with the help of 2021 Liman Fellow Eli Feasley '21 and Aaron Karp, a Brown University data analyst who volunteered time for the project.
Following the 2022 general election, the Liman Center joined with the Full Citizens Coalition, a Connecticut-based organization of formerly incarcerated people advocating to end felony disenfranchisement, to solicit information about the experience of voting behind bars.
“We knew, anecdotally, that many people who could legally vote by absentee ballot were encountering significant obstacles trying to exercise those rights in practice,” Taylor said. “With the help of community organizations with direct ties to incarcerated organizing networks, we received information from more than 130 eligible incarcerated voters in Connecticut.”
Some of the researchers’ findings from these 130 eligible voters:
- Nearly two-thirds believed they were registered to vote in November 2022, but only four — approximately 3% of that group — actually voted.
- 60% indicated that they felt discouraged from voting while incarcerated.
- 87% reported that they would have voted if they had not been behind bars on election day.
- 97% said they did not see publicly posted information about how to vote in the jail or prison before the election.
- One third reported they requested voting information, but fewer than 3% said they received it.
“I actually registered to vote shortly before I was incarcerated and would have liked to vote if I had the chance,” one respondent told the Liman Center. “The Department of Corrections does a horrible job of informing inmates of their rights and options pertaining to voting and our rights as citizens of this state.”
Taylor explained how this information will be used.
“The 130 people we heard from represent about a tenth of registered incarcerated voters. That’s nowhere near exhaustive, but the aggregate experiences and narrative descriptions we gathered help to put a face and voice to a form of voter suppression that is usually hidden from view,” Taylor said. “With other community organizations and legal advocates like the state’s Unlock the Vote coalition, the Liman Center will continue to pursue reforms to remove the barriers to voting for incarcerated people.”
Moving Democracy Forward in Wisconsin
Absentee ballot access has also been a focus for Elizabeth Pierson ’18, a 2018 Liman Fellow now working in Wisconsin. She is currently a Legal Fellow for Law Forward, an organization that works to protect the rights of voters, ensure democratic laws are enforced, and hold fraudulent electors accountable in the state.
Pierson noted that one recent county circuit court ruling limits municipal election clerks by providing confusing instructions regarding whether they can accept absentee ballots with incomplete but discernible address information.
“We’ve seen that some clerks in the state have had inconsistent responses, and there’s a real concern that some absentee ballots are not being counted, for bad reasons, frankly,” Pierson said. “It’s a function of a lack of clarity in what they should be doing.”
After completing her Liman Fellowship project to expand housing rights for low-income residents, Pierson clerked on a federal district court before joining Law Forward in 2022.
“Everything we do has to do with reducing barriers to voting and making sure that everybody’s vote counts equally, and that government functions the way that it should and in an accountable way,” Pierson said.
Law Forward also represents 19 Wisconsin voters in a lawsuit challenging the state’s legislative maps as an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander.
To Pierson, casting a ballot is harder than it should be for far too many Americans.
“Voting is the most basic constitutional freedom, everything else comes from that. The fact that we’re in this situation where there are people who want to set up barriers to voting and often rely on arguments about voter fraud that we know are not fact-based is really a problem,” she said. “The amount of voter fraud that occurs is minuscule compared to the people who are actually disenfranchised by unnecessary restrictions on the right to vote.”
Voting is the most basic constitutional freedom, everything else comes from that. The fact that ... there are people who want to set up barriers to voting ... is really a problem.”
— Elizabeth Pierson ’18
Pierson described one case voting rights case that had a successful outcome.
“In the summer of 2022, the Wisconsin Supreme Court issued a decision that got rid of ballot drop boxes and also said that it was not legal to have somebody drop off your absentee ballot for you,” she said. “The court did not include any acknowledgment that voters with disabilities
needed such assistance to cast their ballots. We represented several voters who were disenfranchised by the Court’s ruling. We asked the federal court to declare that under the Americans with Disabilities Act disabled voters do have the right to get assistance with their
absentee ballots. We won that case.”
The court’s August 2022 decision in Carey v. Wisconsin Elections Commission held that state law cannot bar disabled voters from receiving assistance to return their absentee ballots in person or by mail.
Protecting Election Integrity State by State
At the Brennan Center for Justice, former Liman Fellows Alicia Bannon ’07 and Alice Clapman ’03 work toward the organizational mission “to uphold the values of democracy.” As Senior Counsel for Democracy, Clapman focuses on election security and election integrity, and as part of the Brennan Center’s Voting Rights team is focused on how to protect the country’s electoral systems “from the type of subversion we saw in 2020,” she said.
“There is, unfortunately, no shortage of examples of election subversion that one can take from 2020 and even 2022, both in Georgia and elsewhere,” Clapman said.
A 2006 Liman Fellow, Clapman just published a paper, How States Can Prevent Election Subversion in 2024 and Beyond, that identifies the types of state policies that best protect election systems from subversion and “surveys the pressure points for election subversion.” She explained that “many of the examples come from battleground states like Georgia — in fact, most of them do because that’s where people have focused their efforts.”
Clapman pointed to gerrymandering as one of the greatest current challenges to American democracy.
“Gerrymandering is at the heart of so many other problems that we’re seeing when it comes to voting rights. There are gerrymandered legislatures that are far removed from popular opinion on a lot of issues and push toward extremism, and then they pass extreme restrictions on voting rights, like voter ID laws that disenfranchise large numbers of people,” she said. “I think, without redistricting reform, you have this problem of extreme state legislatures that are more prone to restricting voting rights and also prone to trying to interfere in election administration, such as in Georgia.”
Bannon has worked on a number of issues surrounding voting reform since joining the Brennan Center as a 2009 Liman Fellow. For several years she managed the Center’s redistricting team, which was focused on fairness in the redistricting process, such as where electoral lines get drawn. This included addressing racial discrimination in the process as well as partisan gerrymandering. The team also brought a lawsuit in Ohio challenging the gerrymandered state legislative map there, as well as supporting policy reforms to promote fair maps.
Now, as Director of Brennan’s Judiciary Program, Bannon focuses on the courts as institutions critical to voting and the political system. The program has new initiative focused on state courts and state constitutionalism and ensuring that state courts are robust venues to protect rights, and that includes voting rights.
“State courts can be, and in some cases have been, bulwarks to protect voting rights,” Bannon explained.
Nearly every state constitution has an explicit constitutional protection for the right to vote. Many state constitutions also have other provisions around fair elections that we argue should be given robust interpretation to protect voters’ rights.
“Our work is on the courts, an often overlooked but very important institution for protecting our democracy,” she said.
Bannon noted that decisions from the U.S. Supreme Court over the last decade have repeatedly weakened critical legal protections such as the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Like Walker-Wells, she holds out hope for congressional intervention.
“I’d highlight two bills that would lift up voters’ rights — the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act,” she explained. “Those are clear steps that Congress could take and should take that would make a tremendous difference for our democracy.”