Dozens of attendees at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) convention Monday attended legal education sessions on voting rights litigation and about how the 2020 U.S. Census could end up undercounting communities of color.
Panelists at the election litigation session briefed participants, many of them attorneys, on the do's and don'ts of legal action before, during, and after an election.
San Antonian Nina Perales, vice president of litigation for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), said there's a range of potential illegalities that voters should look out for leading up to any election. Those things could include last-minute changes in polling locations and operational hours, voting procedures and who's eligible to cast a ballot. The format of a ballot also could change with short notice.
"Sometimes, you have to file a case on the eve of an election," Perales said, adding that courts typically are reluctant to interfere with elections.
Perales explained that potentially illegal efforts to suppress votes from minority voters can occur in the form of sudden closure or relocation of a polling site, unauthorized voter identification requirements, and/or rejecting qualified voters.
Even if litigation of a specific election were to be successful, Perales said, plaintiffs have few options for achieving a legal remedy.
For example, shortly after early voting started for the 2016 presidential election, MALDEF filed a lawsuit against Bexar County on behalf of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project (SVREP) alleging that the County was misinforming voters about Texas voter identification rules.
Local polling sites had signage with wrong verbiage referring to the state’s voter ID law, and poll workers offered false information to voters, she said. The County agreed to retrain poll workers, correct the signs, and provide the right voter information. But Perales said that with 800 polling sites to serve, the County had a daunting task to accomplish before Election Day.
"It sounds so easy, but what happened with this election is that the County put together these packages for polling site workers before the judge gave relief on the voter ID requirements," Perales said. "They should've fixed the problem beforehand but, for whatever reason, they didn't and it was embarrassing for them to get in their cars and go out to all the polls with new packages."
Robert Notzon, an Austin attorney who works with the NAACP, told the audience it's vital that whenever anyone sees potential wrongdoing related to an election, details of the incident should be recorded and forwarded to legal representatives.
"If it's not documented, you're left with useless or not good information," he said.
Allison Riggs, an attorney with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, urged advocacy groups, especially those that address voting rights, to know the ins and outs of their state's election code.
"I know it can be voluminous, but by knowing it, you're much more effective and have a better chance a securing a more favorable outcome," she said.
The potential effects of undercounting in the 2020 Census was the topic of another panel Monday at the Henry B. González Convention Center. The census helps to inform how states and communities draw legislative districts, and how funding is provided for such programs as Medicaid, highway construction, and community development block grants.
The U.S. Census Bureau historically has undercounted communities of color and other vulnerable populations, said Yale Law School Professor Michael Wishnie.
"We know who are historically undercounted: African-Americans, Hispanics, renters, the homeless," Wishnie said. "You know who gets overcounted? Multiple-home owners."
A months-long federal hiring freeze that President Donald Trump enacted in early 2017 has left a number of unfilled positions across the federal government, including at the U.S. Census Bureau, Wishnie said. The Census Bureau currently has neither a permanent director nor a deputy director.
The 2020 Census will be fully available online for the first time, but Wishnie said that a digital census may fail to account for people without Internet access – a challenge prevalent in socioeconomically disadvantaged communities – and for people who simply distrust the internet and refuse to use it.
"And this administration is refusing to say anything about cybersecurity," Wishnie said.
For the first time since 1950, the census will include a question about U.S. citizenship, and Matthew Colangelo, executive deputy attorney general for social justice in the New York State Attorney General's Office, said it could deter many people from participating in the count.
"The decision to add the citizenship question to the decennial Census is one of the top five direct and consequential attacks on communities of color we've seen in recent years," Colangelo said.
Census experts and previous Census Bureau directors have refrained from using the citizenship question, fearing that it would deter participation, Colangelo said. Currently, the Trump Administration faces six lawsuits over inclusion of the citizenship question.
"Every community should be highly activated with this," Wishnie said.