By Julia Guerrein, Editor-in-Chief
The Vermont Law School (VLS) Black Law Student Association (BLSA) hosted this year’s Race and the Law Symposium virtually on Friday, Jan. 29. The symposium focused on systemic racism in the United States’ voting system.
VLS President and Dean Emeritus Thomas McHenry opened the symposium with brief remarks.
“If you care deeply about race and the law in America, there is probably nothing more valuable and important right now than go to law school and graduate,” said McHenry. He emphasized that law is arguably the most powerful instrument to address racial injustice. McHenry encouraged students to “stay with it, stay with your studies.”
After McHenry’s introduction, Attorney Kendra Brown gave the keynote speech. She is a 2012 graduate of VLS and is currently the Director of Public Policy for Mastercard. Brown discussed paying attention to practices at the state level that disenfranchised voters, such as drawing districts to ensure a political advantage. Voting happens in every state, and individual state laws are key to either enfranchising or disenfranchising voters.
“We know that anything that is powerful is going to come under attack,” said Brown, referring to the right to vote. “What is our role in righting these wrongs that have happened?” Brown also stressed the importance of the Biden Administration having a commitment to racial equity. After her speech, Brown answered questions from the audience.
Next, a panel of experts addressed voting in 2020 from multiple angles. The panelists were able to share their unique experiences fighting for the right to vote.
Vermont Solicitor General Ben Battles discussed how Vermont extended voting in 2020, especially because of COVID-19. He also addressed the “Independent State Legislature Theory,” which is a theory that state legislatures, and not other election officials or state courts, can determine the rules by which a state conducts an election. Some U.S. Supreme Court Justices and judges across the nation have expressed favor for this view, which, Battles explained, could have big implications for right to vote and having votes counted. Limiting voting rights oversight to states has the potential to limit the efforts that other people make to give everyone the right to vote and modify election rules for local crises. It could also prevent state courts from enforcing state constitutional guarantees.
Celina Stewart from the League of Women Voters discussed the racial divide during 2020 election, which was partially fueled by the hyper-partisan environment of the election. Stewart also expressed the important context of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement for 2020 election.
Sylvia Albert, Director of Voting and Election Programs for Common Cause, emphasized how the voting system was set up to disenfranchise specific groups of people, saying, “When the system was not made with good intentions, it isn’t broken. It is working exactly how it was designed to.” The system, Albert said, was built to make sure Black and brown individuals do not have a voice.
The only non-lawyer on the panel, Juany Torres, discussed the trials and tribulations of registering voters. In Texas, Torres had to go through a special course to register voters. Registering voters without the special course is a felony. Torres further described her experience registering voters in both Nevada and Texas and explained that something so simple could become difficult because of burdensome state laws.
Eric Foner, DeWitt Clinton Professor Emeritus of History at Columbia University, followed with a history of voting based on race. As Foner explained, “it was the Civil War that put Black voting directly on the agenda.”
“Our rights cannot be taken for granted,” Foner stressed to the audience. “Our history is not a straight line of greater and greater freedom…Rights can be gained and rights can be taken away.”
Next, Long Island Civil Rights Attorney Frederick K. Brewington ran through case law regarding the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Patrick Berry, fellow and counsel at the Brennen Center democracy program, followed with a presentation on felon disenfranchisement. Berry explained that over 5 million Americans are barred from voting because of felon disenfranchisement. One in 16 Black adults are disenfranchised because of felonies, and Latinx Americans are also disproportionately impacted by felon disenfranchisement.
The final event of the symposium was a panel discussing whether abolishing the electoral college would increase equity in voting.
Mike Donofrio worked on litigation related to defecting electors. He said with a “resounding yes” that abolishing the electoral college would be positive for voting rights. As Donofrio explained, the electoral college was a compromise that afforded certain power to states that afforded slavery, and therefore has “a racist core.” The trouble is that getting rid of it would require a constitutional amendment.
Pratt Wiley worked as the National Director of Voter Expansion for the Democratic National Committee and as the National Regional Voter Protection Coordinator for Obama for America in 2012. He discussed how big electoral college states and swing states receive more attention from candidates, which helps drive inequities.
Kesha Ram, Vermont State Senator for Chittenden County, was the first woman of color to be an elector in the State of Vermont. She served as an elector for the 2020 election, and shared that Vermont gave the electoral votes that the Biden/Harris ticket needed to reach 270. Ram shared her experience as an elector, especially given the historic election of Kamala Harris as Vice President.
In his closing remarks of the symposium, 2L Elijah Freeman, BLSA President, said, “I hope you understand how voting and politics affect people of color” and that he hopes attendees can “help dismantle institutional racism.”
Despite moving to a virtual world, the symposium was still well-attended. The BLSA e-board was tasked with putting together this symposium.
“It was a bit difficult this year coordinating with the board online and having all my conversations via Teams or Email,” explained Freeman. “Overall I thought we adapted well and were persistent in reaching out to people in order to get such an amazing group of panelists.”
Freeman continued, “The event exceeded my expectations. I was a bit nervous because all of it was new to me—especially the virtual part. The support from VLS staff and the quality of the speakers really made it a great event. The whole board was so excited at how it turned out. I heard nothing but great feedback so that’s always a good thing!”
The event covered a wide range of topics related to voting, but when asked what Freeman hopes attendees take away from the symposium he said, “I hope attendees understand that we have a lot of work to do. There are so many people that have power and choose to silence others but they should be optimistic that great minds are out there fighting back and they (attendees) can join the fight.”