A few years ago, Viviette Applewhite, 93, was mugged and her purse stolen. Without the photo identification cards and Social Security card that were in the purse, this year the Philadelphia native was facing being denied the right to vote under Pennsylvania’s restrictive voter ID law.
With dozens of states passing laws like Pennsylvania’s in the past year—potentially disenfranchising more than 21 million Americans who do not possess the required IDs—voters need teams of lawyers on their side to protect the basic right to vote—teams like the AFL-CIO Lawyers Coordinating Committee (LCC).
Irwin Aronson, legal counsel to the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO and one of the LCC’s 13 voter protection coordinators, wrote detailed briefs supporting the court challenge of the voter ID law.
“They call it a voter ID law, but it’s really a voter suppression law,” says Aronson.
Mike Healey, another Pennsylvania-based LCC coordinator, compares the restrictive new voting laws to poll taxes. “It’s remarkable that in 2012 we have to deal with voter suppression issues that are similar to the ones from the 1950s.”
Each election cycle, the LCC recruits member attorneys around the country who volunteer to help make sure all voters can exercise this fundamental American right. They are union-side lawyers who spend the rest of their time fighting workplace discrimination and helping workers win a voice on the job on issues such as health and safety, pay and benefits.
Most of their work is behind the scenes. If someone goes to the wrong polling place on Election Day, an LCC lawyer may be the one taking a call from a poll worker to help find the right one. If a polling place runs out of ballots or if poll workers don’t know how to operate electronic voting machines, an LCC lawyer may be the one troubleshooting.
In Florida, the state that became the standard bearer for voting problems after the 2000 presidential election, LCC coordinator Alma Gonzalez is traveling from county to county, anticipating problems, fielding and training volunteer lawyers for Election Day poll monitoring. In Wisconsin and Ohio, two other states where the Republican-dominated governments have recently tried to limit voting, LCC voter protection coordinators have led efforts to ensure residents are not disenfranchised. From Milwaukee, Barbara Quindel helped move a bill that would permit voters to provide electronic forms of ID. So, for example, a voter could show a utility bill using a cell phone. In Cleveland, Eben ("Sandy") McNair has worked through the Cuyahoga County Election Board, where he’s a member, to push for a far-reaching vote by mail program. Although it started out as a county program, it now has expanded statewide. “We need to get people to vote by mail,” says McNair. “If that happens, we take pressure off Election Day and avoid long lines.”
LCC lawyers’ commitment to the principle that it’s wrong to deny eligible citizens the opportunity to participate in our democracy stems from our nation’s founding principles. Says Aronson: “The right to vote is not just a fundamental right. It’s a foundational right of our democracy.”