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Advocates Discuss Voting Rights at Harvard Panel Hosted by Vice Provost for Advances in Learning

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Voting rights advocates discussed ongoing litigation at the intersection of racial justice and voting rights at a virtual event hosted by the Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning on Tuesday.

Co-sponsored by the VPAL, the Harvard Alumni Association, and Harvard Law School’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice, the talk featured CHHI Strategic Litigation and Advocacy director Alora Thomas-Lundborg in conversation with American Civil Liberties Union attorney Davin M. Rosborough. The pair discussed a number of ongoing Supreme Court cases with potential implications for voting rights across the country.

During the event, Rosborough described two types of claims — vote dilution and vote denial — that are often brought forth when contesting the application of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Vote dilution deals with redistricting and relative representation of voters. Vote denial refers to “restrictions that affect your opportunity to participate in the political process equally,” including restrictive voter ID laws and precinct closures, per Rosborough.

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In his discussion of vote dilution, Rosborough spoke about Merrill v. Milligan, a Supreme Court case challenging the constitutionality of Alabama’s redistricting plan following the 2020 census. Rosborough said that Alabama has “limited Black voting power to just one district, despite Black Alabamians making up about 27 percent of voters in the state.”

“Voting in Alabama is extremely racially polarized still, meaning that Black-preferred candidates and white-preferred candidates are different candidates,” Rosborough said.

Rosborough, who anticipates a decision from the Supreme Court on Merrill v. Milligan between March and June 2023, said the court’s decision to take up the case “really made clear that they were interested in reconsidering things.”

In response to a question on voter fraud, Thomas-Lundborg said that some states have passed restrictions to prevent voter impersonation, though she noted those cases are uncommon.

“The idea that we need to make it more difficult for something that is exceedingly rare has always kind of just blown my mind a little bit,” Thomas-Lundborg said. “In fact, not just voter ID, but there are lots of things we do to make voting really difficult — like having it on a Tuesday, when a lot of people are working.”

The speakers also discussed Moore v. Harper, an upcoming Supreme Court case on partisan gerrymandering under the “free and fair” election clause of the North Carolina constitution. In February, the state’s supreme court struck down the redistricting plan on the basis that extreme partisan gerrymandering violates the state’s election clause.

Rosborough said one of North Carolina’s main arguments is the “independent state legislature doctrine,” which theorizes that state courts do not have a role in federal elections given that time, place, and manner are determined by state legislatures.

“That’s really what that case concerns – whether state courts and state Supreme Courts can enforce their own state constitutions, or whether state legislatures basically get the free rein to do whatever they want, irrespective of the state constitution,” Rosborough said.

During the virtual event, Thomas-Lundborg cited an anecdote in which she had to continually explain American voting restrictions to her Swedish in-laws.

“I cannot explain to my in-laws what I do, because when I try to explain to them about the restrictions that we have on the right to vote, it just blows their mind,” Thomas-Lundborg said. “When I think about our system compared to other democracies, no one else has a system that is as difficult to participate in as ours.”

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