News, On Campus

Battle at the Ballot: Panelists Analyze Voting Rights

Many factors still prevent people from exercising their right to vote in the United States today, according to Sophia Hall.

“Voting is not as easy as breathing, and in my opinion it should be for everyone,” Hall said. “If you live in certain states right now, it’s clear that that’s not the case.”

The American Constitution Society of Boston College Law School hosted a panel discussion on Thursday afternoon titled Battle at the Ballot: The Issues That Impact Voters’ Rights.

Hall, deputy litigation director at Lawyers for Civil Rights in Boston and BC Law ’12, stressed that voters’ rights are violated not just nationally but right here in Massachusetts.

“When people talk about voting rights, they want to talk about the sexy things that get covered by Fox News and CNN,” she said. “I think we are mistaken if we say that Massachusetts is a place that does not have voting rights issues.”

Hall said she voted via absentee ballot in Ohio elections until she began her law career in Massachusetts. Once she voted in person in Massachusetts, Hall said she could better understand the problems around voting rights.

“One of the reasons I had trouble thinking through the complications in a polling center—like disability access, language access—was because I had never been in a polling center,” she said. “It’s hard to think how to solve big problems when you don’t actually know what they look like.”

Hall recommended that the aspiring lawyers in the audience work as poll watchers, so they too could witness threats against voting rights first hand.

“There are never enough poll watchers,” she said. “They need young people and need people who understand the law and people’s rights to voting. Even if you can’t advocate during that particular time, what you can do is observe and work for organizations later.”

George Brown, a professor emeritus at BC Law, and Hall then discussed the ongoing Merrill v. Milligan Supreme Court case—a case alleging the structure of congressional districts in Alabama dilutes the influence of African American voters.

Hall mentioned that since the Alabama Supreme Court acknowledged the racial impact of the way these congressional voting districts were drawn, change should have ensued.

“The state supreme court recognized there was a racial impact through a voter dilution … in the way that [the] map was drawn,” she said. “What should have happened, in a normal world, is that that legislature would go back and get it right and redraw their maps to ensure that people have equal access and a proper voice in that voting system. Instead, the case went up to SCOTUS.”

Brown said Merril v. Milligan will cause a chain reaction that impacts future congressional district mapping.

“There’s a good example of why what the Supreme Court does matters to us here on the ground,” he said. “What the Supreme Court says in Milligan is going to have a tremendous domino effect.”

Brown analyzed another Supreme Court case, Moore v. Harper, which concerns the state’s role in determining how federal elections are held. It is dangerous that state legislatures have the ability to determine congressional districts, he said.

“Once a state legislature has promulgated districts, the state courts have no play in reviewing those districts for their compliance with the state constitution … giving the state legislatures carte blanche on a wide range of electoral matters seems almost unthinkable,” he said.

Hall also emphasized the personal political interest state legislators have in shaping the congressional districts.

“A world in which the legislature itself, which is a voted body, who has a deeply entrenched interest in the outcome of the voting map, would be the sole authority with no oversight,” Hall said. “You don’t want to be in any place that compacts power into just one set of hands.”

In light of the upcoming midterm elections, Brown mentioned the particular salience the Supreme Court holds today.

“The affirmative action case is an example of an issue that people understand, whether they are lawyers. That’s a real world issue that’s gonna be decided by some seemingly abstract principles of the law,” he said. “The Supreme Court is on the ballot this year in more ways than one.”

November 6, 2022