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Election Law Experts and Activists Discuss November’s Urgent Challenges at Sparer Forum

09/30/2020

Amidst the excitement and anxiety of the upcoming U.S. presidential election, the annual Sparer Forum in September brought together election law experts and activists to discuss the major issues and challenges facing voters in November. The forum, hosted by the Edward V. Sparer Public Interest Law Fellowship Program, focused on how the structural barriers to voting and the systemic disenfranchisement of minority communities and other marginalized groups limit local, state, and federal democracy.

The panelists included Wilfred U. Codrington III, assistant professor of law, Christina Asbee, director of assistive technology and voter access programs at Disability Rights New York, and Jan Combopiano, deputy director at Worth Rises, a non-profit criminal justice advocacy organization.

The panel was moderated by the new director of the Sparer Program, Professor Cynthia Godsoe, who organized the event with Sparer Fellowship Committee members Codrington and Professor Prianka Nair, co-director of the Disability and Civil Rights Clinic. Sparer Fellow Meredith Wiles ’22 co-moderated the event.

“This year we celebrate 100 years since the ratification of the 19th amendment, and it has been 55 years since the passage of the Voting Rights Act,” said Codrington. “These were profound manifestations of democracy in action, but we still have a lot of unfinished work to do before we can make good on their promises of broad inclusion and equality, so we can have a government of, by, and for all of the people.”

Combopiano said that since the expansion of enfranchisement by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, some state lawmakers have designed a system of “voter suppression by process,” such as voter ID laws, closure of poll sites, and the requirement of witnesses and notaries to register to vote. In addition, many districts remain noncompliant with other existing laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act.

During the question and answer session, the panelists agreed that the most important way to prepare for the coming election was to check one’s voter registration status. Combopiano encouraged everyone, especially law students, to volunteer to work the polls on election day. Codrington also cautioned against expecting immediate results on the night of the election, due to the large number of absentee and mail-in votes that would need to be counted.

“This is an important and potentially life-changing election on many levels,” said Asbee. “Making sure that boards of elections are held accountable for what they need to provide for voters is incredibly important.”

The Edward V. Sparer Public Interest Law Fellowship Program was established in 1986 to honor Sparer, class of 1959, who was one of the leading poverty lawyers in the country, and to encourage law students and lawyers to carry on his legacy. Dean Michael T. Cahill called the Sparer Program “deeply woven into the fabric” of the Law School, citing that, since 1986, there have been more than 600 Sparer Public Interest Fellows, many of whom have gone on to continue serving the public good in their careers.