During a study session on race and voting rights facilitated by McCourt Fellow Matthew Colangelo, guest speaker Julie Fernandes, who is Advocacy Director for Voting Rights and Democracy at Open Society Foundations, described how political power is at the heart of the policy debate surrounding voter access.
Though constitutionally guaranteed and essential to racial inclusivity and equity, voting rights, she said, have been challenged throughout U.S. history by restrictive and counterintuitive laws that disproportionately burden African Americans and Latinos in an attempt to maintain the status quo, Fernandes told McCourt students.
She pointed to the election of President Barack Obama in 2008, when widespread perception emerged that vast numbers of new voters spurred by changing demographics bolstered the President’s electoral victory, as just one of the more recent impetus for a sweeping backlash of restrictive state-level voter laws that have centuries of unfortunate precedent in the U.S.
Although voting rights have followed a non-linear and often regressive trajectory, critical advancements, she said, are being made thanks to landmark legislation such as the Civil Rights Act and the National Voting Rights Act. Even so, she cautioned, challenges persist, as centuries of racial discrimination cannot be undone in a mere matter of decades.
“This whole question of ‘who gets to vote?’ in our democracy is big – and it has always been with us,” she said.
The dialogue was part of an ongoing series of talks, led by Colangelo, focusing on topical social and cultural issues facing the nation today. He recently hosted Mary Beth Maxwell, a senior policy advocate at the Human Rights Campaign, to discuss the Trump Administration’s recent reversal of the federal government’s guidance on protecting transgender students in schools and colleges.
Colangelo is a former Obama Administration official, having served in senior positions at the White House, Department of Labor, and Department of Justice. In addition to being a McCourt Fellow, he works as a lecturer at the Georgetown University Law Center.