We Need to Talk About – and Defend – the Right to Vote

Sheila S. BostonBy Sheila S. Boston, President, New York City Bar Association

The task of defending democracy in the United States did not end with the 2020 election. An alarming number of legislators and 60% of Republicans say they believe that our current president was not legitimately elected. State legislators are enacting a slew of voter-suppression laws, claiming they must do so to restore voters’ faith in the election system, notwithstanding that any such lack of faith, in large part, is the fallout of propagating the myth that the election was “stolen.” Moreover, much of this work to undermine democracy is happening quickly and behind closed doors at a time when many voters understandably are turning their attention to other matters.

In Georgia, Florida, Texas and many other states, efforts to curtail voting have gained momentum since the 2020 election, in ways that have the most severe impacts on racial, ethnic or other demographic groups considered likely to vote for candidates in the opposing party. Some of the legislation, including bills introduced in Georgia and Texas, appears designed to weaken the ability of local election officials to withstand in 2024 the sort of partisan, bad-faith challenges to vote counts that occurred after the 2020 election. The action of the Arizona legislature to authorize a clearly partisan further review, outside of normal channels and public scrutiny, of that state’s 2020 election results exemplifies this dangerous trend.

Many of the recent efforts to restrict or undermine equal access to the ballot are a direct threat to the democratic process and the rule of law in our nation. Many of these restrictive voting laws are being litigated, and there are good arguments on First and Fourteenth Amendment grounds. But litigation can only do so much, and in some cases the courts may not be able to do anything until after the damage is done in the next election cycle. That is why federal legislation like the “For the People Act” and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act is critical.

Business leaders and many law firms deserve credit for speaking out against voter-restrictive legislation. However, it is the responsibility of every lawyer and, indeed, every citizen to do the same. We do not all agree on many issues across the spectrum of public and private rights, but lawyers in New York and every other state are pledged to uphold our Constitution and the laws of the jurisdictions in which they practice.  Implicit in that pledge is an obligation to defend the democratic process and the Constitutional right to vote that is the foundation of an informed democracy in which all citizens have equal rights. 

That is why I have asked the City Bar’s Rule of Law Task Force and Election Law Committee to devote attention and resources to this vital issue, including: analyzing and supporting federal legislative solutions; supporting the ongoing work of law firms and legal organizations in their efforts to speak out against and challenge voter-restrictive legislation; conducting programming so that lawyers and members of the public can learn how to engage on these issues; and conducting outreach to bar associations and law schools across the country to urge them to become involved in what should be a significant and collaborative effort across the country to repudiate these efforts to undermine the democracy that we as lawyers have all pledged to defend.