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Brooklyn Bar Association discusses past, present and future of voter suppression

September 17, 2020 Rob Abruzzese
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The Brooklyn Bar Association and the Caribbean American Lawyers Association hosted a continuing legal education seminar on voter suppression on Tuesday with a pair of local attorneys and a history professor from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

“We are arguably in one of the most trying years of the 21st Century and it’s a time where every vote is not insignificant,” said Dewey Golkin, co-chair of the BBA’s Civil Rights Committee.

The two-hour event was titled “Voter Suppression: Past, Present and Future” and featured a history lesson from Prof. Alexander Keyssar. Attorneys Steven Cohn and Martin Connor, a former New York State senator, gave local context. Bar association organizers explained that they wanted to inform membership on a topic that has been in the news nearly every day.

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“Voter suppression is what you do when you want to disenfranchise people, but politically and ideologically it is no longer possible,” Keyssar said. “So what you do instead is to create obstacles, you burden the right to vote and make it more difficult for people to exercise their rights that they would formerly oppress.”

Hon. Sharon Bourne-Clarke introduced Prof. Keyssar, who wrote the book “The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States,” and more recently “Why Do We Still have the Electoral College?” Keyssar explained that historically, voter suppression has been high after the electorate changes.

Alex Keyssar, left, who was introduced by one of his former students, Hon. Sharon Bourne-Clarke, talked about the historical context of voter suppression in the United States and explained that it has exploded since the Bush/Gore election in 2000.

“What you see in state laws [after the Civil War] there are literacy tests in the North, poll taxes, very intricate registration requirements,” Keyssar said. “New York required in-person registration every so often that applied only to cities with a population larger than 500,000, which was targeted at New York City.”

Keyssar explained that the biggest periods of increased voter suppression occurred after the Civil War, when Black people had the right to vote in the South, and later, when there was a large influx of immigrants of Irish, Italian, Jewish and Eastern European descent.

He said that today there has been a similar pushback because of efforts in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s to get poor people to vote and because of political lessons learned after the 2000 presidential election.

“The lesson that political professionals took from the 2000 election, a very close presidential election, was that control of the national government can hinge on one-tenth of one percent of the vote in a particular state,” Keyssar said. “That meant that every vote does count, and that means that not only votes cast for your candidate, but votes that are not cast for your opponent. Voter suppression can be an absolutely critical and decisive strategy.”

One of the things that Keyssar attributed to an increase was the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case of Shelby County v. Holder that stripped much of the protection from the Voting Rights Act of 1965. That case stripped the teeth out of the “pre-clearance” clause of the Voting Rights Act, he explained, and allowed states to change their voting laws without federal approval.

Steve Cohn, left, and former State Sen. Martin Connor provided local historical context for voter suppression issues.

“A number of states, including Florida and Texas, had a number of laws that [the federal government] denied under preclearance,” Keyssar said. “Within hours of the Shelby County decision, they were reinstated.

“The suppressive acts that were taken by states and counties that were covered by the Voting Rights Act have become far more widespread, and in some cases more effective precisely because those states do not have to seek preclearance.”

Cohn and Connor explained issues in New York State, New York City and in Brooklyn.

“When you talk about voter suppression you also have to talk about turnout and you have to talk about the tricks of the trade,” Cohn said. “Some things that are done are quite simple — for instance if you want to turn out the vote in a particular area, put out cards explaining when and where [people] can vote … also polling sites can be placed in areas that nobody can reach at all, and that will certainly keep people from voting.”

Cohn also pointed out that the Board of Elections, which erroneously canceled approximately 200,000 voter registrations, is supposed to be controlled by both parties, but in New York City the Democratic Party is significantly more powerful than the Republican party so there isn’t always oversight.

“The Board of Elections of NYC canceled about 200,000 voters, many of whom were still eligible to vote,” Cohn said. “That was certainly a horrible thing and suppressed the vote.”

The BBA’s next continuing legal education seminar will be on Thursday, Sept. 24 at 1 p.m. and is titled, “The Use of Investigators in Litigation Matters.” First Vice President Richard Klass will host that lecture with William Belmont, an investigative attorney.

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