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Voting rights advocacy at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School

November 02, 2021

In the voting rights sphere, the Law School offers several public interest law and pro bono opportunities as well as thematic, timely courses and a voting rights fellowship.

With many states across the country moving to restrict voting rights, the need for skilled advocates who can work to increase voter participation, access, and protection is urgent. The University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School has a strong commitment to protecting and enhancing voting rights and participation among citizens, carried out through various public interest law and pro bono opportunities and events, curricular offerings, and a new fellowship to support graduates advocating in the voting rights sphere.

“As a law school, we have a unique responsibility in shaping how the law can impact critical areas of voter participation, access, and protection – and that action is needed now more than ever,” said Dean and Bernard G. Segal Professor of Law Ted Ruger. “The Law School is firmly committed to the pursuit of access to justice for all, including protecting the ability and right to vote.”

With Election Day falling squarely within this year’s Public Interest Week, organized by the Toll Public Interest Center (TPIC), the Law School has two events addressing critical issues about democracy and voting rights. “Solving the Democracy Problem,” coordinated by the Democracy Law Project (DLP) and the Law Students for a Democratic Society, featured a panel of voting rights experts who spoke to the confluence of democracy and economic inequities. Panelists included: Benjamin Hovland, Designated Federal Officer, Technical Guidelines Development Committee; Andy Lamas L’81, Professor, University of Pennsylvania; Jamila Medley, Organizational & Leadership Development, Jamila Medley Consulting; and Ian Vandewalker, Senior Counsel, Brennan Center’s Democracy Program.

In the Penn Program on Regulation’s 10th Annual Distinguished Regulation Lecture, Professor Guy-Uriel Charles, the Charles Ogletree, Jr. Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, will present Race, Power, and American Democracy: Rethinking Voting Rights Law and Policy for a Divided Nation.” Charles will explain how recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions have weakened the Voting Rights Act and undermined its race-based model for protecting voting rights, exploring what the implications are for the future of voting rights in today’s politically polarized and racially stratified society, where many states are considering changes to voting rules. The lecture is co-sponsored by The Regulatory Review and the Law School’s Office of Equity and Inclusion and is part of the Penn Program on Regulation’s Race and Regulation Lecture Series and the “Advancing Racial Justice” colloquium launched last year.

Analyzing voting rights in the classroom

The Law School regularly offers a range of courses exploring the ever-changing landscape of voting rights and their protection. Among this year’s curricular offerings are “Voting Rights and Suppression,” taught by Professor of Law, Emeritus Frank Goodman, and “Voting Rights, taught by former Fried Frank Fellow and Lecturer in Law Deuel Ross L’09, who, in addition to teaching at the Law School, serves as a Senior Counsel and Director of Professional Development at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.

Despite voting’s centrality to a well-functioning democracy, the right to vote has a deeply contentious and racially discriminatory history in America. Ross’s “Voting Rights” course centers around racial equity in voting rights laws. Students enrolled in Ross’s course study the landmark piece of legislation meant to thwart racial discrimination in voting, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Throughout the course, students not only analyze pivotal Supreme Court opinions related to the Act, such as the Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder decision, but they also engage in discussions that pertain to the historical, social, and philosophical contexts in which these jurisprudential transitions occurred; the syllabus includes careful attention to grassroots activism, politics, and legislation.

The course, which includes a series of guest lectures delivered by practicing voting rights lawyers, encourages students to think practically about how voting rights law functions today. By the conclusion of the course, students will be able to use their foundation of voting rights knowledge to think critically about how contemporary realities — such as the COVID-19 pandemic, racially discriminatory voter identification laws, restrictions on early voting, and voter purges — continue to influence voting rights and democracy today.

The Democracy Law Project

The Democracy Law Project (DLP) tackles crucial issues in democracy law, election law, and voting rights while also seeking to locate discussions of democracy with broader conversations of racial, gender, environmental, and social justice. DLP works to ensure that every citizen has equal access to the ballot and casts a vote that counts, and to ensure that democratic institutions are responsive to and representative of citizen concerns.

DLP participates in the following ongoing pro bono partnerships involving voting rights:

Campaign Legal Center

Through the Campaign Legal Center (CLC), student volunteers conduct outreach to formerly incarcerated people to restore their access to voting. In addition to the initial outreach and intake, volunteers support clients through the restoration process. Last year, DLP engaged in the same project focused on Florida voters. This year, the partnership has expanded to Wyoming and Arkansas. Another ongoing CLC project involves the restoration of voting rights for individuals with felony convictions in Tennessee. Blair Bowie L’17, co-founder of DLP, is the CLC supervising attorney for these projects.

Fair Fight Action

Working with Fair Fight Action, student volunteers interview and assist Georgia residents in drafting declarations (narratives that detail their voting experience) for use in the organization’s ongoing, non-partisan efforts to promote voting access and combat voter suppression in Georgia. This project is running in continuation from last year.

Texas Civil Rights Project

With the Texas Civil Rights Project, student volunteers are working on redistricting-related research to document potential Voting Rights Act violations in Texas following a proposed redistricting in the state legislature.

Cozen Family Voting Rights Fellowship

Earlier this year, the Law School announced the Cozen Family Voting Rights Fellowship, which, thanks to the generous support of a multi-year gift from Steve Cozen L’64 and his wife Sandy, will provide funding for a post-graduate fellow working to advance and protect voting rights.

“Sandy and I strongly believe that our democracy and its institutions and norms, including the rule of law, are being challenged as never before by legislative attempts to restrict or deny the right to vote,” said Cozen, who is a member of the Law School’s Board of Advisors and has previously served as an adjunct professor at the Law School. “That basic right, we believe, is the cornerstone of our democracy and we will do anything we can to help preserve that right in a fully unencumbered fashion.”

Emily deLisle C’16 L’21 was recently named the inaugural recipient of the Cozen Family Voting Rights Fellowship. DeLisle is partnering with the Native American Rights Fund (NARF), and she is working to expand the ability of Native Americans living on reservation to exercise their right to vote by addressing the most significant barriers preventing Native voters from casting their ballots: the lack of registration opportunities, ballot drop boxes, and polling places (collectively, “voter services”) in their communities. 

Learn more about the Law School’s unwavering commitment to public service.