Georgetown University Law Center’s Voting Rights Institute received a $1 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation on March 23.
The grant came from a $30 million fund at the foundation, which will be distributed among approximately 45 organizations that also seek to expand democracy in the United States.
The VRI was formed in October 2015 in conjunction with the American Constitution Society and the Campaign Legal Center in reaction to outcome of the 2013 Supreme Court case Shelby County v. Holder, which declared the coverage provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 unconstitutional. The decision allowed states to change their voting and election laws without preclearance, essentially preventing the government from restricting discriminatory voting practices.
VRI Institute for Public Representation Co-Director and visiting GULC professor Michael Kirkpatrick said that the institute plans to use the grant to continue its work to engage students, graduates and fellows in voting rights education, advocacy and litigation as well as expand its website. Since its launch, the VRI has trained over 300 attorneys and students in different areas of voting rights law.
Kirkpatrick discussed the institute’s mission and emphasized the importance of the new grant in accomplishing this purpose.
“What we’re doing with the Voting Rights Institute is trying to train a new generation of lawyers to do these cases,” Kirkpatrick said. “This grant is going to help us get the Voting Rights Institute off of the ground and moving and really getting out there to train people to fill the void which was left by that Supreme Court case.”
Kirkpatrick said the need for lawyers focused on voting rights is especially important in the wake of Shelby County v. Holder.
“After that Supreme Court Decision, the preclearance system is no longer in effect, and so now states are free to make any changes they want. If those changes are discriminatory, well then it’s up to the minority community to bring their own cases to challenge those changes as a violation of their voting rights,” Kirkpatrick said. “So what we have now is really a vacuum in that there aren’t enough lawyers trained to bring those affirmative voting rights cases.”
Jill Dash, vice president for Strategic Engagement at the ACS, which facilitates public policy debates among legal, public policy and media figures, said the grant came at a particularly important moment in American voting rights law.
“We’re all thrilled. It’s a great honor to have MacArthur supporting our work,and it comes at a critical time where there is still a threat to voting rights across the country,” Dash said. “The work that the Voting Rights Institute does is so critical to helping people continue to engage with their right to vote.”
Dash highlighted the institute’s plans to use the grant to continue developing its current programs and nationwide training sessions.
“We are going to continue doing more of what we’ve been doing quite successfully, which is training lawyers and law students around the country to engage in voting rights litigation. This grant will allow us to do training in even more locations and train more people,” Dash said. “We just need a lot more litigators out in the field addressing voting irregularities.”
Kirkpatrick said the grant will also help expand the VRI’s website, which is set to have one section specifically aimed at litigators, containing an amalgamation of voting rights cases and precedents from across the country.
“This is important because it used to be these states that wanted to make changes in their voting practices had to send their proposals to the Department of Justice,” Kirkpatrick said. “Now that they don’t have to do that, we need to collect that information from all over the country, and we may not necessarily hear about it, and other lawyers may not hear about it. So this is going to be a central clearing house of information.”
Dash said the other section of the new website will be a resource for voters to report voting irregularities and receive information from others who may have seen similar voting restrictions in their areas.
“If you live in Raleigh, and you want to see what else has been reported in Raleigh so that you know you’re not the only person, you’ll be able to see complaints as they come in, and you’ll also be able to see events and news with respect to voting across the country,” Dash said.
According to MacArthur Foundation Senior Program Officer for U.S. Programs Tara Magner, it was a combination of nationwide training, rigorous voting rights preparation at GULC and the new website that convinced the foundation of the VRI’s status as a worthy recipient of the grant.
Magner also conveyed the MacArthur Foundation’s optimism in its future relationship with the VRI.
“We’re happy and proud to be associated with the Institute, and delighted that it’s getting off to such a terrific start,” Magner said.
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