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Berkeley Talks transcript: ACLU leader on how voter suppression works

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FILE - In this April 7, 2020 file photo, voters observe social distancing guidelines as they wait in line to cast ballots in the presidential primary election in Milwaukee. Wisconsin's presidential primary election held last month in the face of the coronavirus pandemic drew concern from doctors, voters, poll workers and politicians who warned that having thousands of people leave their homes to cast ballots would further spread the highly contagious virus. Now well beyond the 14-day incubation period for COVID-19, and with a Tuesday special congressional election in northern Wisconsin looming, it remains largely unknown just how many people contracted the virus at the polls on April 7. (AP Photo/Morry Gash File)

Listen to Berkeley Talks episode #145: ACLU leader on how voter suppression works.

[Music: “Silver Lanyard” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Intro: This is Berkeley Talks, a Berkeley News podcast from the Office of Communications and Public Affairs that features lectures and conversations at UC Berkeley. You can subscribe on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. New episodes come out every other Friday.

[Music fades]

Susan Hoffman: Good morning, everyone. I’m Susan Hoffman, the director of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UC Berkeley. I’m really delighted today to have a colleague, Abdi Soltani, who is with the Northern California ACLU, with us today to talk about voter suppression.

He is so well-placed and has such an expansive agenda that we’ve asked him to come and speak about what he’s doing in the state, as well as what’s happening on the national scene. He is a nationally recognized civil rights leader who has dedicated his adult life to social justice and equal treatment for all.

As the executive director of the ACLU of Northern California, he’s been quite expansive looking at ways that the ACLU could be more of a presence in the Central Valley and at the state capitol. Having myself spent a decade at the state capitol representing the arts, I know how important the Central Valley is to the polemics and to the legislative agenda there. And so, I am delighted with that focus. I also just simply mention he’s been recognized not only by the Gerbode Foundation as a leader in the nonprofit community but also has a Levi Strauss Foundation, Pioneer in Justice Fellowship. So, with that, Abdi Soltani, the floor is all yours. Welcome.

Abdi Soltani: Great. Well, thank you very much, Susan, for this kind introduction and for welcoming me to be here as part of the conversation and to each and every one of you who’s taking the time to be here. I really want to underscore how important this time is for our country and how essential it is for every citizen and for every person to be at the height of our vigilance.

The ACLU has been working to defend the Constitution and the rights of all people since its founding in 1920. And there have been enormous challenges facing civil liberties and civil rights over the course of that entire century, whether it was at the time of our founding in the ’20s and the face of the horrible racial violence of lynchings that was happening throughout the country in the 1920s. That was the era in which the president of the United States had a showing of film that was extremely racist, Birth of a Nation in the White House, that justified the narrative of the lost cause of slavery. And that was shown in the White House, the United States of America, in the 1920s.

The ACLU fought for equality and rights of protestors in the 1930s during the Great Depression. And that’s when the ACLU of Northern California was founded in San Francisco in 1934. As longshoremen and dock workers went on strike in San Francisco and were met with not just batons, but bullets and protestors were killed as they were exercising their First Amendment rights. In that founding moment of the ACLU of Northern California, there was a confluence of vigilant violence and police violence that unfolded hand-in-hand.

I think you all know that in the 1940s, the ACLU fought the internment of Japanese Americans, another threat to our democratic values and the idea of equality before the law. In the ’50s, we challenged the House un-American Activities Committee, and all through these decades, the ’50s, ’60s, and onward challenging racial inequality, defending the right to vote, helping to implement the Voting Rights Act after it was passed throughout the southern states, fighting for marriage equality coming into the more contemporary era.

The reason I paint that long story is that the risks to our democracy are always there. It takes people like yourselves and people who may be listening to this after the event to be the guardians, whether you’re a person or a citizen, to be the guardians of our constitutional rights. And this is where I speak without hyperbole, is that the events of Jan. 6, where a sitting president of the United States invoked the words that Donald Trump did, persistently trying to undermine a free and fair election, persistently tried to undermine the peaceful transfer of power that is the hallmark of our basic Constitution since its founding is unprecedented. We have had periods of violence, political violence that I’ll talk about today. But what we have just seen in January was really unprecedented.

Now, it’s not without precedent that there’s political violence in this country and the undermining of free and fair elections through violence, but this is a very unique and perilous moment in American history. And it’s going to take all of us to be vigilant in defending the right to vote and protecting free and fair elections going into the coming years.

So, what I’m going to do today is I’m going to take you first through a little bit of what I think are some of the most important moments in the history of the United States in terms of our ability to secure the right to vote and free and fair elections.

After I do that, I’m going to take you through some of the current threats to those rights as we see them unfolding in the United States. And then I’m going to talk with you about some of the work we’re doing in California because ours is one of the 50 states in this republic, and we have a responsibility, also, to make sure that voting systems and voting rights are protected in each and every one of our counties, as well as throughout the state.

And Susan, I understand that we’ll have time for question and answer and discussion. So I’ll look forward to that portion of the event as well. Does this sound good, Susan?

Susan Hoffman: Abdi, that sounds wonderful. That really covers a lot of the bases. Thank you.

Abdi Soltani: Great. And I will say just as folks listen, at the ACLU, I have the privilege of working with people who are specialists in voting rights, specialists in redistricting, specialists in each and every part of the work that we do. I’m a generalist at the ACLU. So, I would encourage anyone who is following this to consult the ACLU website for the specifics of individual cases and also to recognize that our work is really developing very fast right now, state by state, as cases are won, decisions are secured, but then they may be backed up on appeal.

So, the content of this video is not necessarily the most timely on any given topic on any given day, especially for those who are watching it. And also, I would encourage anyone to just consult the individual case pages and the individual developments for the most legally timely and accurate information.

Let me begin with just a little bit of the context and background of voting rights and elections in this country. We all know the words of Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence that we created a republic on the idea and on the foundation of the consent of the governed. The consent of the governed is fundamental to the principle of republican government and representation. And if there are some core ideas that were foundational to this country, they’re there in the Declaration of Independence.

We all know that there was a huge distance between the aspiration of the Declaration of Independence and the reality of the republic that was created at the founding. But let us be clear that the right to vote, the concept of representation, the idea of the consent of the governed, however flawed or limited it was at the time of the founding, is one of the essential ideas of this country, and it is one that we have fought for over and over, and that we have to fight for today.

Those words of the Declaration of Independence led to the creation of a republic comprised of 13 colonies that became states. Those 13 colonies created states, and within those states, the former colonists became citizens. The white men of those colonies became the voters, and in the constitutional conventions, in the colonial assemblies, they voted to ratify and create the first Constitution of the United States.

So, it was through the act of voting in those colonial assemblies that the Constitution of the United States itself was formed before we were a country. Before we existed, we were voting.

We all know that the Constitution was immensely flawed, as was the life and liberty of people in the country, most especially through the genocide of Native people that began in the 13 colonies and spread west, most especially through the institution of chattel slavery in which persons were not all citizens, persons were enslaved as property. And we all know that women were excluded from the right to vote, including white women who owned property, I believe, in all the colonies at the time of the founding.

The system of government that was created in the Constitutional Convention led then to a second Constitution, the one that we know today that strengthened the Federal Government and gave us the structure of government we have today. That includes a presidency with a four-year term. That is important, a peaceful transfer of power every four years from president to president, since the time of George Washington, with the interruption of the election of Abraham Lincoln.

The peaceful transfer of power between representatives in the house every two years and between senators every six. The Constitution that we know today at the time did not define who would vote and left that to the states, although it specifies the Congress has the right to set the rules of elections, as it affects federal elections.

Article 4 of the Constitution also says that the federal government will guarantee to each state a republican form of government. If that had properly been interpreted since the founding, each state would’ve been required to live up to the principles of republican government from the beginning, but that is one of the most neglected parts of the Constitution. But since the beginning, the federal government had a responsibility to make sure that each state lived up to the responsibilities and principles of republican government, but we failed to do that.

So, from that founding in the late 1700s, the country proceeds decade through decade through its territorial expansion. The future territories would become states. Slavery would spread west. And the essential question of whether those territories would become slave states or states that would bar slavery roiled the country.

These battles of the Civil War were fought first state by state, territory by territory. The Civil War, we know today, was first fought in Kansas and in Nebraska, the Kansas and Nebraska wars. Those questions were fundamental, and California played a place in it through the Gold Rush would expedited the spread of slavery, the question of westward expansion, and whether slavery would spread west or whether freedom would spread west.

It’s no coincidence that in 1849, when we had the Gold Rush in California and California was admitted to the country, that it was only a decade later that the Civil War began because these questions became more front of mind and more urgent. And the Dred Scott decision of Supreme Court, the U.S. Supreme Court, came down firmly on the side of slavery and required it as a standard of freedom in this country that a person who owns another human being as a slave would have the right to own that person as property in all of the territories and boundaries of the United States.

That became ultimately the catalyst for a movement for free soil, the election of Abraham Lincoln as the first presidential candidate who spoke not to abolish slavery, but to limit it, to constrain its growth, so that slowly perhaps it would meet its demise. That alone was enough for the states in the South to revolt. And they did not agree to a peaceful transfer of power to a new president, and sparked the Civil War.

The right to vote at that point was still limited to white men, mostly in states based on rules that also required property frequently that excluded people who were poor or people who were in jail or who had been convicted, state by state. There was no national definition of citizenship, no national right to vote, and we enter the Civil War.

Coming out of the Civil War, the country passed three amendments to the Constitution. And I want to just emphasize that the freedom struggle of Black people to abolish slavery in alliance with the movement to abolish slavery is itself an epic story that deserves multiple presentations by the Osher learning community.

The 13th Amendment abolished slavery. The 14th Amendment established fundamental principles in Section 1 that says, “All persons born in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof are citizens of the United States.” I am deeply loyal and grateful for the 14th Amendment because in 1973, at the time of my birth, it is that sentence of the 14th Amendment that granted this child of Iranian citizens the right of citizenship in the United States.

The 14th Amendment also provides the core words of equal protection under the law, among many other features. But as powerful as the 14th Amendment was, the abolitionists of the time called it a “total surrender.” And the reason is that the 14th Amendment provided a path by which the former officers of the Confederacy could regain their citizenship. And it had no further protection for voting rights, except to say that if one of these former Confederate states or any state in the future suppresses the vote of a portion of its population, it will lose a proportional amount of representation in Congress. Imagine that.

After the blazing and the burning of this country through four years of civil war, that is as far as the 14th Amendment went to protect the right to vote for those people who had just been named citizens in Section 1 of the 14th Amendment. Imagine that. All it said was that if a state suppresses the vote, it will lose a proportional share of its representation in Congress. It didn’t say you cannot suppress that vote. It just said, if you do, this would be the sanction.

Immediately in the age and the days after the Civil War, the political violence against Black people, as well as white men in the South who were on the side of the republic and on the side of the union, was fierce. This history in the ashes of the Civil War of that political violence was stunning. And Congress took note and powerful voices like Frederick Douglass, who had dedicated his life to first, abolishing slavery, and then, to securing the right to vote, kept their voice, and that led to the passage of the 15th Amendment of the United States Constitution.

The 15th Amendment says that the right to vote shall not be abridged on account of race or previous condition of servitude, but the Fifteenth Amendment itself was a compromise. It did not have more expansive language to set or create an affirmative right to vote. And there were versions of the Fifteenth Amendment that would’ve gone further, but the votes were not there in the Congress or to ratify it in the states at the time.

The Fifteenth Amendment more expansively could have said that there shall be no literacy tests, no property tests, or similar things of that sort, but it didn’t. And in part, it’s because Black people and others who had fought for equality were not themselves yet at the table in all the states or in Congress in order to secure a more expansive 15th Amendment. Picture that. At the time of the founding, the white men in the colonies were at the table when they were creating the Constitution, but not yet were the gains of the 15th Amendment fully in place, such that the people who would be fighting for a stronger 15th Amendment, would’ve had a voice in it.

Do you follow me? So the 15th Amendment itself was limited and a compromise according to what could be achieved through the white-dominated power structure in the states and through the white-dominated power structure in Congress, even when the radical Republicans, Thaddeus Stevens, and others who were the champions in Congress had the upper hand, that’s all that could be achieved.

From there, there’s a period of 10 years of the reconstruction in which Black men could vote. Men who had fought on the side of the Union Army could vote, could become office holders, as happened in states like South Carolina or Louisiana. And there was what many have called “a new birth of freedom,” a second American revolution and a second founding. But it faced political violence, and after 10 years, reconstruction came to an end, and that itself could be, Susan, the topic of an Osher talk in and of itself if you haven’t had it already.

That then led us into a period, a long period of voter suppression that we called Jim Crow. It was the combination of state laws, federal inaction and political violence. Remember that. State laws to suppress the vote, federal inaction to protect the vote and political violence left unchecked by state governments and, ultimately, the federal government. That was the fear in which a person would lose their life if a Black person were to exercise that vote.

I want to underscore one other point related to our country’s history is that at the time of the founding: The Constitution provided the famous three-fifths clause by which “other persons,” which meant slaves or enslaved persons, would be counted as three-fifths of a person for the counting of Census and for the allocation of representation in Congress.

The 14th Amendment and the abolition of slavery ended that. Every person was now five-fifths for the purposes of the Census. And rightly so, don’t get me wrong. But now, the former Confederate states got even more representation because instead of each enslaved person who was counted as three-fifths, each newly freed former slave, enslaved person and their descendants would be counted as five-fifths of a person. And so, the former Confederate states got more representation, more power in Congress. Imagine that. And yet they suppressed the vote through state laws, federal inaction and political violence.

Remember that section of the 14th Amendment that said that if you suppress the vote of a portion of your population states that your representation could be reduced in Congress. There was no such sanction imposed on those states because they had now the upper hand. They had the seat of power and the leverage. The net effect was that those segregationist states gained even more power, and that led us through the period of Jim Crow.

I also want to underscore that it’s not until 1920 that we passed the 19th Amendment, through which the right to vote according to sex was protected in the Constitution of the United States. And Susan, I’m going to give that short shrift, but that too should be the subject of an Osher talk if you haven’t had that story already. And it’s full of complexity related to the relationship of race and sex, which I will have to hold off on from today.

So, then we enter the era coming out of World War II, returning soldiers of the United States, Black people who had gone to fight fascism, come back to the United States and faced the wrath of the discrimination in our own country. And beginning in the 1940s, leading through the 1950s, we have the crescendo of the powerful civil rights movement and the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which is the corollary of the 14th Amendment and the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which is the corollary of the 15th Amendment.

The parallel structure of the 14th Amendment and the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 15th Amendment and the 1965 Voting Rights Act is a long-deferred, long-delayed symmetry that this country needed long before. And there were civil rights acts immediately after the 14th Amendment, and there were voting rights efforts, but they were cut short by that powerful force of segregation that I talked about.

I think we all listened carefully to the words of John Lewis after he passed away in that powerful letter that he wrote to all of us, and to future generations, about the need to protect the right to vote, and we should heed his call.

And so, I’d like to now recognize that, in the arc of that history, we now come to the questions of how we protect the federal Voting Rights Act, how we apply the federal Voting Rights Act to the states, the role of the judiciary, the federal judiciary and the federal courts in being on the side of the Voting Rights Act and the 15th Amendment in the Constitution, and how many of these same tensions that have played out over the course of this history are playing out for us right now. Remember those three core themes. State laws that suppress the right to vote — those are unfolding right before our eyes in states throughout this country.

Federal inaction, remember that currently, the Justice Department of the United States is taking action on the side of protecting the right to vote, and for that, we are grateful, and that is exactly what the Justice Department of the United States should be doing.

But the federal courts, unfortunately, under the current jurisprudence of the Supreme Court that began with the Shelby decision in which Judge Roberts was part of the majority. And some of the more recent decisions of the Supreme Court are limiting the scope of the Voting Rights Act in the courts. And so, federal inaction right now is happening in the courts, whereas certainly during the Trump presidency, we had the problem, not a federal inaction, but federal voter suppression.

But under the current administration, the federal government is taking steps to protect the right to vote, but in the face of diminishing and horrible decisions of the Supreme Court that are limiting the scope of the Voting Rights Act. So, we had state laws that suppress federal limits of federal enforcement and political violence. And it was political violence that unfolded on the steps of the Capitol and in the Capitol in order to suppress the transfer, peaceful transfer, of power. And there can be no room for political violence in relation to people’s right to vote. But political violence can take the form of more subtle forms of intimidation.

In fact, some of these state laws that are passing are creating that more subtle form of intimidation by having people who are completely unqualified be stationed in polling places to intimidate voters, which is different than the work of a normal poll worker or a normal person, who’s there to just monitor a fair election. So, we just have to be careful of that style of voter intimidation while providing for transparency elections at the same time.

So, let’s now turn to what we’re seeing unfold in the country. And then I’ll speak about California, and then we’ll open it up to questions. Right now, in states around the country, we are seeing a wave of voter suppression laws of the kind that we have not seen in decades. This includes in the State of Texas, a state in which a growing and very diverse population is registering to vote, new people becoming citizens, people registering to vote. So, Texas is an absolute key battleground state in terms of voting rights. And the legislation that’s passed that we’re fighting at the ACLU.

Georgia, another critical battleground state, and the right to vote where we’ve seen in recent elections, just a surge of people voting new citizens, as well as longtime citizens voting in large numbers. Michigan. Each of these states, especially battleground states, are ones that we are really vigilant in defending the right to vote.

We should also keep in mind that elections are one on the margin. And so, voter suppression in the modern era may not have the kind of categorical exclusions that past voting suppression efforts did. Some of them do, I will be clear. But to the extent that the voter suppression laws create an extra burden or wait or barrier for people to register to vote, remain register to vote, to impact an election, and to truly impact power marginal differences of 10,000 votes, 50,000 votes, 100,000 votes make an enormous difference. And they matter. And that’s why for the ACLU, it’s fundamental to protect the right of every person who’s a United States citizen to be able register to cast that ballot and for that ballot to be counted.

The forms that voter suppression takes include several. One is onerous voter registration requirements that create a significant burden on the person to vote. Another is limiting the number of polling places, making it such that a person has to travel a great distance to vote on election day.

There are currently efforts that are trying to cancel the voting that has been long allowed over the weekends leading into presidential elections or other elections, what we call early voting. In the face of COVID, there was also strong efforts to create more access to universal vote by mail so that every person could vote from the safety in the time of their own at home. And certainly, we support the expansion of universal access to vote-by-mail so that every person has the opportunity to vote in that way.

The ACLU also supports automatic voter registration so that when a person is registering their vehicle with DMV or updating their driver’s license, or accessing benefits at a disability office or other social services points of contact that, we’re able to register to vote as citizens, and also to update our registrations.

These are examples of positive efforts on voting that create that access for universal, equal democratic participation, where voter suppression efforts also take aim to restrict those points of access, whether at the point of registration or at the polling place and the like.

The second major area, in addition to this voter suppression issue, is the issue of redistricting. Redistricting is unfolding in real time. I’m giving this talk on Feb. 18, 2022, and the redistricting battles are unfolding right before us. For the ACLU, the redistricting battle began in order first to protect the Census and the policy debates leading up to the Census and especially certainly in 2019 and 2020 when the Trump Administration was actively trying to undermine the Census and the Census data, that is the foundation of redistricting.

In earlier decisions of the United States Supreme Court, the U.S. Supreme Court has limited the jurisdiction of the federal courts in cases of excessive partisan redistricting. And so, you’re seeing the ACLU, and many of our partners create cases in parts of the country under state Constitutions. A good case to look up is the ACLU’s case in Ohio, where we use the state Constitution to challenge a partisan, excessively partisan, state redistricting. Another state to follow in the debate on redistricting that’s happening in real time is Alabama, where there was a positive decision related to racial discrimination redistricting that I believe is currently on appeal. And that is important to monitor to see how that litigation unfolds.

So, at the national level, we talked about protecting the right to vote against voter suppression and also the importance of expanding access through policies like automatic registration or universal vote-by-mail. We’ve also talked about redistricting as two of the critical points of nexus in the work on voting rights, federally or nationally, I should say.

Let me now turn our attention to California. When we think about voting rights in this country, the way that our attention focuses on it tends to be with a focus on the battleground states in the presidential elections. Those are the ones that get the most of our attention.

Think back to 2004 in the State of Ohio. Because of Ohio being a swing state and the way in which that election unfolded, there would be a lot of attention on voting systems and elections in the state of Ohio. Think back to the election of George Bush versus Al Gore in Florida, and a state like Florida, whereby virtue of the hanging chads, a presidential election was ultimately decided. So, what I’m getting at is that we tend to focus on voting rights in those states, which are battleground states, but it’s been a long time since California was a competitive state and a long time since it was a battleground state.

So, when I came to the ACLU of Northern California in 2009, to be completely candid with you, voting rights was not high on our agenda. We did have a focus on the rights of people to vote, who were in jail or formerly incarcerated, which was a righteous and necessary focus. But we did not have a broader program on California voting rights and elections.

What we learned at that time was that California’s voting and election systems were, in fact, worse than many of the states that we were fighting in other parts of the country where voter suppression was happening. What was happening in California was through the neglect of our county governments and the neglect of secretaries of state. We had allowed our voting and election systems to atrophy to a level that shocked our conscience and shocked our standards of voting rights at the ACLU. And we then took action.

Over the last six to eight years, the ACLU, our partners, community organizations and other advocates with support, ultimately of lawmakers and policymakers, have enacted a set of sweeping important reforms that have made California what we expected to be a model for voting rights and access in this country. I’ll give you just a few examples of some of those policies.

One of them is the state’s system of automated voter registration through which, where every person at the point of your contact with DMV or with other agencies has now a very strong access to voting. There is a federal motor voter law in which that was provided through in-person, in paper voter registration, but we’ve been successful through legislation and worked with state agencies to make it so that that happens integrally in our online contacts with the DMV. But we’ve also worked to ensure that other agencies, especially those that serve poor people, people with disabilities, people of color, disability offices, as an example, are part of that robust system of voter registration.

Another example is that California now has universal, no-excuse absentee voting, where we can each be on the voter role, get our absentee ballot, and return it in the mail. It’s far more convenient for voters. It doesn’t require you to give up hours of your day on election day to stand in a polling line. However, accessible those polling places are.

Another example is same-day voter registration. We now have a system that, on election day, a person who’s a citizen can go and vote, even if you’ve moved in the 30 days or in the 10 days before the election. Not everybody has a stable address and a permanent home address. Many renters and unhoused people don’t have that stability. And so, election day registration through provisional balloting is another system that we’ve now created in California.

What I’m really proud to report is all of those changes put together have resulted in California now having a rate of voter registration than we hadn’t seen since before World War II and the level of democratic participation and the access to vote in our state as far in excess of what it was before these changes were enacted.

Another priority has been that steady: work to ensure that people who are currently in California jails or formerly incarcerated have the right to vote. In the 2020 election, on all the things that you as citizens had the opportunity to vote on the California ballot, there was one measure that got the highest percent of voter support on the entire 2020 ballot, and it was a ballot measure that the ACLU and our partners, especially a group called Initiate Justice — that’s a tremendous organization — helped put together with other partners that said that at the end of the prison term, when a person leaves the gate of a state prison, on that day, they are again eligible to vote as a citizen of the United States and of California. And we removed the requirement that a person would have to wait and complete the term of parole before they could gain that right to vote again.

The reason that’s important is not only for the people who are coming out of prison and want to vote on day one, but it’s also the confusion that we see in the community of all kinds of people in our state, thinking that they’re barred for life from voting after serving a felony sentence. And so, we have a crystal clear rule now that if you’re not in state prison and you’re a U.S. citizen, you can vote. You can vote if you’re a citizen in jail, you can vote if you’re a citizen in jail on a misdemeanor or a felony in jail, and you can vote the minute you walk out of the prison at the conclusion of a felony sentence. And so, that also is a huge accomplishment.

Let me say a word about the Central Valley. It is a major priority for us to ensure the protection of the rights of the constitution in California, Central Valley in counties like Tulare County, Kern County, Stanislaus, San Joaquin. And that is a major focus of the ACLU of Northern California across all of our programs, all of our issues, including our work to protect the right to vote.

With that, Susan, I think I should pause and see what questions you want to ask me, Susan, and also, I have not been able to follow the chat. So, I’d love to maybe review the chat to see if there’s some questions you’d want me to answer, Susan.

Susan Hoffman: Abdi, thank you very much. What a clear analysis of a sweeping history from the federal inaction to the way that the states have had some jurisdiction to apply decisions. I am looking at the chat right now. I do not see a question that has emerged, and so I will leap in there and ask a variety of questions.

I think many of our members are members of the ACLU, and just practically speaking, to be a member of the national ACLU should we be a member, both of the national as well as Northern California. Can you just explain some of the benefits of that and getting the support you need for your work?

Abdi Soltani: Yeah. Thank you so much, Susan, for asking the question, and we really are grateful to each and every person who’s a member of the ACLU and who makes the donation. So, I just want to emphasize one of the great things I love about the ACLU is that when you join the ACLU, you’re a member of the ACLU of your home state and of the national, just automatically. So, using the metaphor of voter registration, you only have to register once. And so, when you join us, whether as a dues-paying member or in our online kind of email lists and so on, you’re kind of joining the federated organization.

Susan, the other thing that I love is that the membership dues or any other contribution is shared by the national ACLU in the home state. And we have a really strong system by which we make sure that in places like Northern California, where there’s such generosity of support that a lot of that support goes to both the national ACLU, but also it’s invested in states like in the south or other states like Texas, the south Midwestern states that need more resources than there may be locally available. So, those membership gifts are shared and make a huge difference.

Susan Hoffman: Great. Thank you.

Abdi Soltani: There a couple of great questions in the chat that I’m seeing now. Should I answer first, I’ll read them, and then I’ll answer them?

Susan Hoffman: Sure. Go ahead.

Abdi Soltani: There’s a question, I won’t say who it’s from, just because that would be tacky. A person whose first initial is M.: Won’t voting suppression limit Republican voters, too? Martha, that’s a fantastic question. And I really appreciate it. And the answer is absolutely yes. And I will underscore the ACLU as a non-partisan organization. We oppose voter suppression period. And one thing to note is the ACLU has sued some Democratic states where the Democratic legislatures have redistricted in a state in a way that overly favors Democratic voters, and the ACLU is a non-partisan equal opportunity, and so we will fight both Democratic or Republican efforts to do those things.

Now, it’s true that most of the current voter suppression laws are being passed in states with Republican majorities in their legislatures and usually Republican governors. And it is the case that some of those voter suppression efforts will harm Republican voters, too.

Usually, the voter suppression laws are often… they are designed in such a way to give partisan advantage or to target minority voters, poor, low-income voters, voters with disabilities. And so, there are cases where we still prevail in the federal courts where it’s so overt the surgical way in which the laws are designed to affect the rights, for example, Black voters.

So, short answer is voting suppression can limit the rights of voters of all parties, and certainly, they’re often targeted in a way to affect the rights of Black voters, other voters of color, low-income voters and voters with disabilities.

There’s a question about California redistricting and how are we doing. At the ACLU of Northern California and with our partners in the ACLU of Southern California, we have a project that’s focused on the redistricting process in the state of California. We have been vigilant. There’s a way in which the state has an independent commission that draws the state legislative lines, as well as our congressional lines.

Our focus has not been on that. Our focus has been on the redistricting of local government, including counties, cities. We’ve sent demand letters to many jurisdictions. We’ve wanted the processes to be transparent and for the processes to ensure that there’s fair representation, especially according to the lines of race. And for anyone who’s interested, I’d encourage you to search ACLU and Fresno as an example. And the Fresno Bee has provided extensive coverage of our ongoing advocacy in Fresno County regarding their redistricting process. So, that’s a place that I’d really highlight.

Let me go to the chat. There’s a question, “Are incarcerated people registered to vote in the district of their choice, or are they required to vote in district of their… it says here, prison location?” So, in California, people who are in state prison are under the state Constitution, cannot vote. So, the state Constitution says, if you’re in prison, you can’t vote. We just amended the state Constitution to no longer prohibit someone on parole from voting. But if you’re in state prison, you can’t vote.

If you’re in county jail, there’s a structure under the law. And one that we are very vigilant with and that we work with very closely at a wonderful organization called Legal Services for Prisoners with Children in a network called All of Us or None of formally incarcerated people. It’s a powerful network. And for many years now, going on 15 years with one of our champions Dorsey Nunn, who is a tremendous leader in our community, we’ve worked very hard to make sure that really getting down in the details of making sure that the jails provide voter registration and voting within each jail. And I could be wrong on this, but I believe that location of that person voting would be wherever the jail is.

The prison location issue is a big issue in the Census. And I believe, and I think I’m 99% right on this, that a person who’s incarcerated in prison for the Census is counted as a resident of the location where the prison is, which gives additional representation and resources under the Census to those locations where the prisoners are held, rather than the community from which the person would return or is from in their home community. What else do we got Susan in the chat that you want me to have?

Susan Hoffman: You have a question from Margot. She says, “I live in San Joaquin County. Can you explain a little more deeply as to the concerns of the ACLU that you’re focusing on there in that county?”

Abdi Soltani: Thank you for the question about San Joaquin County. I’d have to check to answer the question of what we’re doing on voting and elections in San Joaquin County. I have a pretty good handle on the work of the ACLU, but not that specifically. But what I can tell you is that we’ve done a lot of work in San Joaquin County and, specifically, in the city of Stockton, regarding education equity and the issues of the school-to-prison pipeline, et cetera.
So, I’ll just say, if you want to look up ACLU work in Stockton or San Joaquin County, our website, will refer to some of that work. But I can’t speak off the top of my head to what we’re doing specifically on voting rights in San Joaquin county right now.

Susan Hoffman: Great. OK. Well, thank you for that. Has voter turnout increased in the past 20 years?

Abdi Soltani: I love that question. Well, the 2020 election was an incredible example of citizens in this country, all over the country, turning out to vote in huge numbers. And as I mentioned, voter turnout is combination of really two things.

One is you have to have the system of laws, policies, local government and state government practices through which people can register to vote accessibly and through which people can vote, whether by mail or in person. So, you have to have the infrastructure under state and local law and federal oversight that I talked about earlier to provide for robust turnout.

But the other thing is you need a motivated voter, an engaged citizen, a person who recognizes that their voice matters. And that’s where I will say voter suppression takes two forms. Voter suppression takes the form of suppressing the legal right to vote. Voter suppression takes the form of affecting the structures, the laws, the policies and practices by which people are kept from voting.

But there’s a second form of voter suppression, which is the willful manipulation of voters. The disinformation, spreading misinformation, causing cynicism, distracting people, such that they feel unmotivated to vote or that their vote doesn’t matter. And that’s like a second issue in terms of voters have to be motivated, inspired. We got to do the work. We’ve got to read the ballot. We’ve got to prepare. We got to do that work.

But there’s also a way in which there are efforts to undermine people’s motivation to vote, create that cynicism that it doesn’t matter. And that’s something that we see very much in people who are low-income communities, communities of color, that kind of bear the brunt of government forces against them. But I will also say, I think that Donald Trump’s continuous undermining of elections and them being fraudulent could cause that cynicism on people who listen to him. And I don’t want that. I want every person to live in a country in which they have a right to vote. That vote is protected under the law.

The election systems provide them a way to register, to vote that their vote is counted and that where we all have hope, we all have belief, in a democratic system of government where we share power with each other and where we settle our disputes in elections and where we have a system of courts that protect the rights of minorities.

When those elections, the majority takes actions against the rights of minorities. It’s not just pure majority rule. That’s why we have a Bill of Rights. That’s why we have 14th Amendment as well.

So, it’s a simple question: Has voter turnout increased in the past two years? Absolutely. The 2020, the 2018 elections, the 2020 elections were very high. It’ll be very interesting to see what happens in 2022. I think the 2020 elections were interesting because it all unfolded with the risks of COVID, and there were a number of measures taken in many states under the emergency of the public health to provide access, to vote by mail, or some other measures that we now see being attacked.

I will point out, for example, I’d really encourage people to look at what’s happening in Montana, which for decades has had some well-supported policies providing for voter access. But suddenly now, in the face of Donald Trump’s lies about voter fraud and this kind of spread of voter suppression, even a state like Montana is rolling back some of the very sensible laws that were benefiting all of their residents. So, it’s really unfortunate how we are backsliding right now.

Susan Hoffman: Abdi, I’m afraid we’re coming to an end, but I’d like to have you answer one more question. We do have a dozen more questions that we’ll need for the moment to go un-responded to, but that question that I’d like you to address is about online voting. Does ACLU have a position on this? Is there concern around the security of online voting? How is it regarded?

Abdi Soltani: Susan, that’s a great question. I appreciate the question. I’m going to say that’s the kind of question I’d normally want to check and see, like, does the ACLU have a policy on online voting? I will now speak then just off the top of my head, which is that I would expect that we would have very strong concerns about online voting. And I’m quite certain about this is because of just the incredible risks of the way in which electronic systems can be compromised. And we strongly, strongly believe in a paper trail of being able to really see through an election.

So, I’m not on the firmest ground because I want to double-check, but I’m quite certain that we would insist on a system of voting where there’s a way to verify it, do the recount, have the paper so that we can have the confidence in the results. But that’s something I’d want to double-check.

Susan Hoffman: Great. Well, Abdi, thank you very much for your time. I know you have a packed day and agenda overall, and I’m really glad you could spend this hour with us. We have your colleague, Emerson Sykes, is going to be with us. I believe it’s on March 4. We have been talking as an OLLI at Berkeley community about critical race theory. We know that that is under attack within our educational institutions. Emerson will speak to those issues on March 4. But for right now, I really want to thank you very, very much for the time today.

Abdi Soltani: Great. Well, I appreciate the invitation. Thank you for having me. And thank you to everyone who’s taking the time to listen to this, and please take action this year and every year to defend that most fundamental right of all, the right to vote. Thank you.

[Music: “Silver Lanyard” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Outro: You’ve been listening to Berkeley Talks, a Berkeley News podcast from the Office of Communications and Public Affairs that features lectures and conversations at UC Berkeley. You can subscribe on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. You can find all of our podcast episodes with transcripts and photos on Berkeley News at news.berkeley.edu/podcasts.