Six years ago, upon joining the bar, I raised my hand and swore to uphold and defend the Constitution. I distinctly remember the deep sense of pride I felt two years later as I carried out that pledge by working as an election protection volunteer on Election Day. Elections provide attorneys with an opportunity to discharge a responsibility that is unique to our profession. Although it can be hard to remember while slogging through a nasty discovery dispute or a tricky transactional matter, attorneys have a special role in our country’s national fabric: upholding and defending the Constitution. Regardless of your political affiliation, this duty, as much a privilege as it is an obligation, has special significance during elections.
Whether you find it exhilarating, exasperating or tedious, it is presidential election season again. Although it can be lost among the punditry, fundraisers and nonstop political advertisements, the single most important thing in an election is the actual voting. The right to vote — also called “the franchise” — is a fundamental right protected by the Constitution. From the earliest days of our nation’s history, the franchise has been understood as an essential ingredient to a healthy, functioning democracy. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson said that “governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” James Madison later explained that “the right of suffrage is a fundamental article in Republican constitutions.”
Indeed, the legal history of the franchise in America has been a story of expansion; of providing the right to vote to more and more people. The 15th Amendment states that the right to vote “shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude.” The 19th Amendment provides that the right to vote shall not be denied or abridged “on account of sex.” And the 26th Amendment mandates that no one over the age of 18 may be disenfranchised on account of his or her age. Well more than 100 years ago, the Supreme Court explained that the right to vote is “a fundamental political right” because it is the “preservative of all rights,” in Yick Wo v. Hopkins, 118 U.S. 356, 370(1886). Thus, it is not surprising that the Supreme Court has since concluded that “any restrictions on that right strike at the heart of representative government,” in Reynolds v. Sims, 377 U.S. 533, 555 (1964).
Here in Pennsylvania, as in other states around the country, it will be more difficult to vote this year. As a result of the Pennsylvania voter ID law, passed earlier this year, Pennsylvania residents must now present a photo ID each time they go to the polls. (The law also impacts the rules for absentee ballots.) The Pennsylvania voter ID law has been criticized for being overly partisan (Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Mike Turzai infamously claimed that the law would “allow [former Massachusetts] Governor [Mitt] Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania”) and deeply problematic. Critics argue that the law will disproportionately impact people of color. A recent study using state data concluded that prospective voters in Philadelphia’s most African-American neighborhoods are 85 percent more likely to lack proper identification than voters in predominantly white neighborhoods, and prospective voters in heavily Hispanic and Asian neighborhoods are more than twice as likely as white voters to lack the identification necessary to vote in November. Opponents of the law have challenged it in court, seeking to enjoin enforcement of it. This legal challenge was denied by the trial judge, but has been appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which may not issue a ruling until close to November 6. All of this, combined with a close presidential contest, likely will contribute to an eventful Election Day.
Particularly in light of this new law, one of the most concrete ways that we, as young attorneys, can fulfill our professional duty to uphold the Constitution is to help our fellow citizens exercise their right to vote. There are many ways to ensure that our neighbors are able to vote on Election Day, and the work involved can be done just as ably by young attorneys as experienced ones. First, because the voter ID law is so new, many people do not know what the law requires or how to get the proper identification they need to vote. They need to be educated. Attorneys are uniquely qualified to help provide this help, and to make sure that the lack of information or a proper state identification will not prevent otherwise qualified voters from exercising their rights. Additionally, on Election Day, attorneys have the ability to serve as election protection monitors at the polls.
Four years ago, I volunteered with the Obama campaign’s voter protection group. I spent Election Day driving all around South Philadelphia, organizing poll monitors and various election wards. The energy and excitement of people — some of whom were voting for the very first time, regardless of their age — was infectious and inspiring. Polls have monitors designated by the Republican Party as well as the Democratic Party, and I urge both Republican and Democratic attorneys who want to volunteer through their political parties to seek out ways to make voter protection a part of those efforts on Election Day.
If the thought of infusing this process with additional politics turns you off, there also are terrific, nonpartisan ways to get involved. The Committee of Seventy, a nonprofit organization that “works for effective, efficient government to benefit all citizens and create a better future for our region,” is one of the premier nonpartisan election protection groups in our region. This year, the committee has put significant resources toward educating Pennsylvanians about the voter ID law and its impact on voters, and has established a voter education field campaign to assist in this effort. The committee also will be bringing together volunteers to fulfill its traditional role as a neutral election monitor on Election Day. The committee’s website is www.seventy.org.
All of our neighbors and fellow citizens, from the southern-most part of Philadelphia to the most northwestern corner of Erie County, deserve to vote if they so choose. We are fortunate to belong to an honorable profession that contributes to a free and open society. Defending the Constitution; protecting the right to vote: These are the activities that bring us that honor by protecting the “preservative of all rights.” I will be out at the polls on Election Day. I hope to see you there, too. •
Michael J. Newman is an associate in the litigation department of Hangley Aronchick Segal Pudlin & Schiller. He has broad experience in complex commercial litigation involving contractual disputes and insurance coverage issues. He has counseled clients facing serious allegations such as securities fraud, insider trading and breach of fiduciary duties.