Seventh Annual MLK Convocation Focuses on Voting Right
Without the right to vote, one has limited power. That is why
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. pushed
hard for voting rights throughout his
career, urging Congress to guarantee
the franchise to Black Americans.
With voting rights again very much a topic of national debate, the theme of Minnesota Law’s seventh annual MLK Convocation focused on one of King’s most oft-cited quotes on the subject: “Voting is the foundation stone of political action.” The hourlong event, held virtually on Jan. 26, was sponsored by the Law School’s Diversity and Belonging Affinity Council.
Garry W. Jenkins, dean and William S. Pattee Professor of Law, began the discussion by reflecting on voting as a fundamental civil right. “Voting allows all people to add their voice, their direct action, to make political and transformational change as individual citizens,” he said. “Unfortunately, we know voting rights for many are under threat.”
Gerrymandering, voter identification laws, voter registration restrictions, felony disenfranchisement, and voter purges are among the ways voting is being undermined in the United States, Jenkins noted.
“Dr. King’s words call on us to think critically and take action on the limits and consequences of a democracy where voting is inhibited,” he said.
Guy-Uriel E. Charles, Harvard Law professor and founding director of the Duke Law Center on Law, Race and Politics, noted how Shelby County v. Holder, a 2014 U.S. Supreme Court decision, struck down a section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“That framework ... really has eroded,” said Charles, who taught at Minnesota Law from 2000-09 and served as interim co-dean from 2006-08. “We’re trying to figure out what’s next.”
Julie Decker ’14, policy director of the ACLU of Minnesota, said the political battles over voting feels like an “inflection point.” Decker added, “It’s a reminder that our democracy, including voting rights and civil liberties, are an ongoing work-in-progress. We’re in the process of building an ideal system.”
Justice Shannon, 2L, president of
the Black Law Students Association,
moderated the event. He asked the
panelists about several voting-related
issues, including perceptions of
fraud, the safety of election officials,
and what the legal community can
do to improve democracy.
The Brennan Center for Justice
found voter fraud is rare, but many
Americans don’t believe traditional
institutions or the press. “The
principle of critical examination and
wariness is not inherently a bad one,
especially in the day of social media,
but it’s being taken to extremes,”
Decker said. “It produces an anti-evidentiary situation.”
Social media falsehoods about the veracity of the 2020 presidential election may also be a factor in how election workers are feeling about their jobs. A 2021 survey by the nonpartisan Brennan Center found that one in three poll workers and election judges reported feeling unsafe and one in six said they’d been threatened.
“How do we assure they have the support they need?” Charles asked.
One possible solution is to provide federal funding to professionalize election workers and prosecute people who threaten those who safeguard elections, he said. Last January, the Justice Department’s Election Threat Task Force made its first arrest in the case of a Texas man who allegedly encouraged others to kill election officials.
On the subject of improving voting rights, both Decker and Charles encouraged lawyers and law students to get involved at the state and local level.
“Volunteer to become a poll worker,” Charles said. “Volunteer on campaigns to work on voter protection issues. Volunteer to support organizations working on democracy and voting rights.”
Todd Melby is a Twin Cities-based freelance writer