Discussing Voting Rights and Why Your Vote Matters with Donita Judge, Associate Executive Director, Center for Constitutional Rights
In this episode of On Record PR, we go on the record with Donita Judge, Associate Executive Director at the Center for Constitutional Rights, where she has responsibility for the organization’s operational planning and provides leadership in the implementation of its strategic vision goals.
Prior to joining the Center for Constitutional Rights, Donita was co-director of Advancement Project Nationals’ Power Democracy Program in Washington, D.C. She served in several management roles and strategic planning sessions that focused on sharpening the organization’s program goals.
Donita was co-counsel in multiple national voting rights cases, including the 2016 landmark North Carolina voter suppression case, NAACP v. McCrory. In 2008, she successfully challenged the lack of due process for 600,000 Ohio voters in advance of the 2008 general election, which prevented their removal from the voter rolls.
Donita has a law degree from Rutgers University Law School in Newark, NJ, and is a Kinoy/Stavis Fellow. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Rutgers University in Newark. She’s the recipient of many awards, including the 2014 Garden State Bar Association’s Oliver Rolph Award, which celebrates the legacy of a civil rights advocate who, in 1914, became New Jersey’s first African American admitted to practice law in the state, as well as the 2017 Rutgers Newark National Lawyers’ Guild Arthur Kinoy Award.
During the university’s 250-year anniversary celebration in 2016, Judge was selected as a Rutgers University Fellow, the university’s highest award. Media company ROI-NJ awarded her the 2020 Person of Color Return on Influence, Impact, Investment honor.
Currently, Donita is the vice chairperson of the New Jersey Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and a National Board Member of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Can you tell our listeners what the Center for Constitutional Rights is and what it does?
The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) is dedicated to advancing and protecting the rights guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. CCR has committed to the creative use of law as a positive force for social change. We do that by combining cutting-edge litigation, advocacy and strategic communications. We work on a broad range of civil rights issues including discriminatory policing, racial injustice, immigrant rights, Muslim profiling, mass incarceration, LGBTQI+ persecution, and government surveillance, among other issues.
Could you tell us a little bit more about your role as associate executive director of the Center?
I actually serve as the thought leader to the executive director, Vincent Warren. I provide leadership in the implementation of the organization’s strategic vision goals. I work closely with the directors of advocacy, communications, development, and operations to guarantee coordination when necessary among our teams. I’m sometimes referred to as the internal executive director, a role that frees up our executive director to be the more public face of the organization.
Are there any particular success stories that you can share with our listeners that represent your center’s mission and what you hope to achieve with the mission?
Our mission really is fusing litigation advocacy in narrative shifting to dismantle systems of oppression, regardless of the risk. One case that has resonated and speaks to our mission is a case that we filed on April 1. It was filed after most of the United States was on a shelter-in-place order because of COVID-19. We filed on behalf of 17 medically vulnerable individuals in Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention. They were being held in five detention centers in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. Our lead plaintiff Tatalu Dada, had a very powerful story. She was a 40-year-old single mother and a prior nursing student. She had been held for three years in ICE detention. She was also suffering from Graves’ disease and she wrote a powerful op-ed. I’d like to share what she said.
“The crowded unsanitary conditions at LaSalle ICE processing center in Jena, Louisiana, where I am detained, make an outbreak all but certain. In my unit, 80 women share three toilets, six showers, and eight telephones. We sleep in the bunk beds just a few feet apart. There is no hand sanitizer and the guards come in and out of the dorm without wearing masks or gloves. The dorm is at capacity, but ICE is still bringing in new people. Last week they brought in someone who was coughing.”
Thankfully, the judge in our case ruled on behalf of 13 of the 17. The judge signed the order on April 30 and they were actually released on June 9, a little more than 60 days after we started the case. We continued to fight in this space. As of last Thursday, we filed for an additional 13 medically vulnerable people being held in two immigration detention centers in Louisiana.
We represent the 13 who are working towards their rerelease in this case as well.
Caitlan McCafferty: Thank you very much for that story and shining a light on one woman’s experience through that incredible op-ed. That’s amazing work.
You served as co-counsel on multiple national voting rights cases, including the 2016 landmark North Carolina voter suppression case NAACP v. McCroy. In 2008, you successfully challenged a lack of due process for 600,000 Ohio voters in advance of the 2008 general election, preventing their removal from the voter rolls.
How do you describe the fight for voter rights and what’s important to you as a voter rights advocate?
Well, certainly the two that you raised specifically with regards to our cases in North Carolina and Ohio were both extremely important because of their similarity — voter suppression.
The North Carolina NAACP case was brought due to a monster voter suppression bill that was introduced in 2013, right at the time the Supreme court was hearing arguments and was rendering a decision in the Shelby v. Holder case. This case was important because the community was what brought us to North Carolina in this case. My role previously was a movement lawyer. As a movement lawyer, you work very closely with communities on the ground, building power in their communities. What that means for us is that we don’t go into a community takeover. We go into a community and ask what it is that they need from us. Based on that, we challenge those issues that the community wants us to challenge; at that time, the then-president of the North Carolina NAACP, Reverend Barbara, was the one who brought us the case. At the end of the day, the community will be left to implement whatever procedures, whatever the court has decided. We have to make sure that the communities are comfortable with what our decisions are and how we’re moving forward. For me, that was an amazing case because the community came out on the first day of our hearing in Winston Salem; thousands of people showed support behind us and made me think about Justice Thurgood Marshall when he was litigating civil rights cases. he asked of the communities one thing:
“Just show up. Put on your Sunday best, come to the court and show up. Show how important this issue is to you.”
I think that resonated with us. It was a tough case. It was a tough fight. We also ultimately prevailed on that case. Often you hear people using the term “with surgical precision” and that came out of our case. It was in our brief; the judge actually wrote that in his opinion. That case is especially meaningful to me — the people that I met, the support that we had, and to be a part of something so monumental.
Then, in 2008 in Ohio, I became aware that 600,000 people were getting ready to be removed from the voter rolls without due process. There was no notice. There was no hearing. These people would show up on election day, they would be able to vote, but they would vote a provisional ballot. Because they had been removed, they were no longer registered, and that ballot would not count. We were able to work with the secretary of state, at that time, was Jennifer Bruner, an excellent secretary of state. We didn’t always agree, and sometime she would say, “Donita, you’ve got to sue me on that one.” But just being able to raise this to her and say, “You know what, we will sue you on this one,” was so important. Ultimately, we were able to work through those individuals, many of whom never even knew that they were in that group of potentially being removed from the roll. So, that was a huge success because 2008 was a huge election in Ohio and throughout the country. I was really happy that I could be a part of making sure that voters were not disenfranchised.
Why is Shelby County v. Holder such an important decision for voting rights?
Shelby v. Holder was the case that resulted in the gutting of an important provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Section 5 was the heartbeat in many ways of the Voting Rights Act. Basically it was a pre-clearance provision, which meant that if your jurisdiction, whether it be your city, your county, or your municipality, had a history of discriminatory practices at the time that the Voting Rights Act was passed, and you have very low voter registration rolls, then you would have to pre-clear any of your changes to the Department of Justice.
That meant if you wanted to move a polling place across the street, it had to be pre-cleared to guarantee that it wasn’t being done for discriminatory reasons. In 2013, Shelby County challenged the constitutionality of that section of the Voting Rights Act. What happened is that the court actually gutted Section 4. Section 4 developed the formula that determined what jurisdictions would be required to pre-clear Section 5 would then require the pre-clearance procedure, but without Section 4, there was really no need for Section 5. The invalidation of Sections 4 and 5 meant that now states could go full speed ahead with voter suppression tactics and they wouldn’t have to pre-clear anything. As a result, I believe a lot of what we’re seeing in this country today has much to do with the loss of Section 5.
In fact, our North Carolina case initially wasn’t considered a monster voter suppression bill. While we were in that case, at the very beginning, the decision in Shelby County was rendered in June 2013. One of the legislatures said, now we can go with the full bill. And that was the monster voter suppression bill. That’s just to give you an and many of the states in the South that were covered, but there were also areas in Brooklyn, Manhattan, the Bronx, and in Alaska. It wasn’t only the South, but those areas all had a history of discriminatory practices. The loss of this is just magnanimous. It really is a huge loss for the voting rights community and more for our citizens.
Caitlan McCafferty: Yes, for everybody. As I watched the news this week, Georgia started early voting yesterday and people are waiting in line for more than five hours. Just to give you a little bit more background information on me, I remember Shelby County v. Holder happening. I was living in D.C. at the time. I was a college student and tried to be very active in the 2018 election by paying more attention and by volunteering. Watching Stacey Abrams lose was a gutting moment. I’ve followed her work since then and recently watched her documentary, All In: The Fight for Democracy and just the egregious actions that have happened since 2013. It clearly delineates that decision and how it’s affected the whole country and how we all vote.
Donita Judge: Absolutely. I was on the ground in Atlanta during the general election of 2018, working with the organization originally founded by Stacy Abrams. We were monitoring all over. When something was happening, we would show up and then advocate on behalf of the voter or the voters.
I specifically remember meeting Reverend Warnock the pastor of Abyssinian Baptist, at one of the voting sites. We had gotten the information that things were happening. We went in and talked to the poll workers, explaining to them that what they were doing was really a violation, not only of federal law, but also state law. I’ve learned that in doing this, our poll workers are our aunties, our friends –they’re people that we know. Many of them are reasonable. They really want to do the right thing. But because the trainings happened once a year, once every four years, you’re not going to learn everything that I would know after having worked on it. Sometimes just appealing to them has made a difference in terms of whether or not a person will be allowed to cast a ballot.
What are some of the other common voter suppression methods that our listeners may be less familiar with?
I’m going to start with the one that I think is going to really challenge a significant number of people this year — the signature match.
This year, many states are voting by mail and by absentee ballot. Reviewing a voter signature can sometimes be more subjective than anything in terms of whether that’s the individual’s signature. To me, that is a huge issue. Certainly, voters need to follow the rules on the ballot as closely as possible. Sign their signature how you would sign it on your check in your checkbook.
If you find that you need assistance with signing your ballot: if someone helps you, there is an area on your envelope where that person can sign and say, I helped this person to sign. Ultimately, it is really important for the states, when they have what they consider a signature “non-match,” to err on the side of counting the ballot, rather than rejecting it. Reach out to that voter as quickly as possible, if in fact, they are considering rejecting the ballot to give the voter that opportunity to come in and correct that ballot or fix whatever the problem is. I just wanted to explain that a bit because I see it as an overwhelming problem this year.
One of the other problems is closing polling places. Some of the long lines that we see have to do with the reduction of polling places, certainly in urban areas. When you close the polling place, you’re going to collapse people into less than what you previously had. It’s extremely important to inform those individuals. Also important is to err on the side of guaranteeing that people can vote rather than chilling the vote, which can sometimes occur. Then of course, in the states where a photo ID is required, people are required to submit only a very limited type of ID, which is challenging. Again, erring on the side of being inclusive rather than exclusive would allow states to use a photo.
If you’re requiring a photo ID, allow significant types of photo ID that many people will have. People in an urban community and certainly, our minority voters may have other ID that will prove who they are, whereas others may not have that type of ID. That’s one of the other areas that I think is really important.
We could go on, but those are the things that are really going to challenge this year’s election.
Caitlan McCafferty: I live in Pennsylvania, and I’ve been following these things to the letter, making sure everyone knows about the secrecy envelope, and making sure that everyone follows the rules for mail-in voting to the letter.
Donita Judge: There’s just one more issue — urging voters from the voter rolls. That has been fraught with errors throughout the country. It is important for voters to check their voter registration before the registration deadline, which happens to be today (10/19/2020) in New Jersey. Check your voter registration to make sure you’re still on the rolls. Sometimes just a data merge can result in individuals being purged from the rolls. I’m not saying that it’s always intentional, although there are times when there’s a cross check with other states you’re trying to match. Then, you’re dropping people out of the rolls without guaranteeing that the cross check is correct. Everyone should be verifying their voter registration before the voter registration deadline because you can’t do anything after it’s closed.
Is there any current litigation that you’re following that you think will make a big impact this year?
I have been following Ohio. Ohio was always a state that I worked very closely in. I was born and raised in Ohio. It has always been a battleground state.
The whole issue of one ballot drop box in each county is problematic. One. I’m j thinking about Franklin County, which is in Columbus, Ohio, and is huge. It’s not like New York City, where there is significant mass transportation and where people can get to that one area. Drop boxes need to be in multiple areas. It is now before the 10th Court of Appeals. It is an Ohio state lawsuit rather than a federal lawsuit. It was found on the lower level that counties could add additional boxes. The secretary of state LaRose appealed it. We’re now waiting for the decision from the appellate court in that area.
I’m following the same thing in Texas. Texas is huge. Everything is big in Texas, including their counties. We are waiting to see if the courts will rule on the side of the voter. We put in a lot of rules for voter fraud that’s almost nonexistent. These are the types of things that they do. They say, “Because of security of the ballot, we’re going to put one box.” Basically, those types of things really are voter suppression. They chill the vote.
Those are the two that I’m following at this point.
Looking at the bigger picture, how are voting rights critical to social justice and achieving equality in our society?
It is vital to have an opportunity to exercise your right to vote. Certainly, we can talk about the many years that black people in this country didn’t have the right to vote. Voting is your voice. This impact so many things in our lives.
We vote for our senators; our senators appoint supreme court justices. We vote for our legislatures; they draw redistricting lines throughout the country. Everything that impacts our lives starts with voting. I am an advocate, not only for people to vote in the general election, but to vote at lower level elections like your city council and your board of education, because those are the votes that impact your life every single day. For example, what type of funding will your school board have available for your children?
in terms of voting, we must think about Black Lives Matter and electing prosecutors who will have the community’s interests. We’ve seen where that has not happened after Michael Brown was killed in Missouri and after Laquan McDonald was killed in Chicago. Those communities came together and voted out of office those prosecutors who chose not to prosecute. That is your voice. That is where you need to really put your focus when you’re voting for these individuals. Are they protecting your interests?
Caitlan McCafferty: Elections matter.
The John Lewis Voting Rights Amendment Act is really the restoration of Section 5 of the voting rights that we lost. What will be different is that it will be more expansive. It will not only look at past historical discrimination, but it will look at current discrimination. It will look at states like Ohio that have not been covered under the voting rights act. It’s extremely important to restore that right to mitigate the voter suppression that we’re seeing. How can we support it? Vote! Vote because the people who will be deciding on this are the people in Congress. You vote for those people. That’s how you support it. Yes, you can call your congressperson, but if you vote, that speaks louder than words.
Is vote by mail safe?
I believe voting by mail is safe, but it’s slow. Because it’s slow, it’s not always reliable. Our uniformed and overseas citizens absentee have been voting absentee ballot for at least 10 years. It has been successful or it wouldn’t have continued. This year we have different circumstances. If you are choosing to vote by mail, because you have no other choice, then you have to vote by mail. But in many of those states where vote by mail is a requirement, they are also including ballot drop boxes. I advocate strongly for ballot drop boxes. If you can get to one, use it. If you cannot, vote early, as soon as you get your ballot.
Drop it in the mail in enough time for it to get there by November 2. In many states, you can track your vote by mail, get online, track it, and find out where it is just like if you had a package coming. You’ll then know that it’s going to get to where it’s supposed to be on time and to be counted.
Is voter fraud a real threat in the United States?
Well, I would just say that it is exceedingly rare. In fact, there was a study done recently by the Republican National Lawyers Association that showed voter fraud is extremely rare. The type of laws that we’re putting in place to prevent voter fraud are red herrings because they’re really not addressing those issues.
How can people make a plan to vote?
Number one — If your registration deadline has not passed, please verify your registration Number two — determine how you’re going to vote. If you are going to vote in person, do not expect that your polling place will be the same place it was in the primary. Get online, contact your board of elections, find out where your polling place is. You don’t want to wait until the last minute to get there when it’s too late for you to get to the place where you’re actually supposed to vote. If in fact, you are going to vote by mail, determine whether you’re going to use a drop box or if you’re going to mail it. If you’re going to use a drop box, then get going. They are in most areas.
The drop boxes are placed out at the same time that the ballots are mailed. Find out where your drop box is, then drop it in the box and track it. If you’re going to mail it, then give yourself ample time to get it there (at least seven days), then track it as well. Then once you’ve done that, sit back and watch the results, because you’ve done all that you could do at this point.
How can people learn more about voting rights?
Well, in terms of film, the recent documentary on John Lewis, Good Trouble is excellent. There are organizations 866OurVote.org that you can follow online. You can search for that link, and it will give you a lot of resources. Other organizations like the Advancement Project is doing significant work and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., is doing amazing work. You can go online and anything that you type in into the search engine will yield page upon page of information that is up to date in terms of voting rights, not only in your area, but throughout the country. What’s happening currently? Who are the candidates? Anything you want is online.
Caitlan McCafferty: Excellent. I could talk about this for hours with you. Donita, I’m thrilled you could join me today. I really enjoyed our conversation.
How can people get in touch with you?
Donita Judge: Go to the Center for Constitutional Rights — our website is www.ccrjustice.org. You can reach us on Facebook, on Twitter and LinkedIn as well. I’m also on Facebook and on Twitter. It’s either Judge, Donita or Donita Judge. Either way, you’ll be able to reach me relatively quickly. If you have questions, shoot those to me on LinkedIn or Twitter. I am happy to respond.
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