What Is The UCLA Voting Rights Project?
The UCLA Voting Rights Project, is a research, advocacy and clinical program within the Latino Policy & Politics Initiative of the Luskin School of Public Affairs. Led by civil rights attorney Chad W. Dunn, J.D. and voting rights social science expert Matt Barreto, Ph.D. this project mixes the perspective of social science research and civil rights advocacy with a focus on voting rights. The project includes active participation in voting rights litigation and appeals, public policy research reports, and course classwork taught at UCLA. The year-long course for graduate social science, public policy and law students surveys voting rights legal theory, history, research, and litigation. Faculty from across campus participate as guest experts to provide their perspective on how to study, research, litigate, and document various aspects related to civil rights.
In addition to the practical legal experience, students also learn how to study and assess the potential history of discrimination against a group in the areas of employment, education, housing, and political representation. Students learn and eventually implement themselves, an in-depth study of the methodology and statistical approach to document the presence or absence of vote dilution or vote denial in different jurisdictions in California or across the country.
The UCLA Voting Rights Project (VRP) was formed to fill three equally important needs in teaching, research, and public policy. First, in teaching, the VRP developed and operates a first-of-its-kind in the nation, interdisciplinary course of voting rights law and practice. Drawing more than two dozen graduate and upper level undergraduate students from the UCLA Schools of Public Affairs, Law, and the Division of Social Sciences, students have had the opportunity to learn the methods and techniques to investigate and prosecute voting rights cases by having the benefit of perspectives from top voting rights attorney and the voting rights expert witness. Topics covered include both the legal theory and practice, as well as the evidence and research needed to advance a successful voting rights claims and litigation and trial strategy.
Although many universities offer a course or two in election-law related disciplines, there are few institutions offering programs designed to prepare public policy, social science, and law students for civil rights related legal careers and heavy civil rights advocacy in particular. Across the country, there is a profound deficiency in university teaching and research programs that offer real-world voting and civil rights training from both a legal and social scientific perspective. Schools offer programs in trial advocacy. A few offer training in voting rights while a few offer training to graduate students in social science methods relevant to voting rights cases. However, no school offers a program that brings all of these elements together in a real world clinic of pursuing voting and civil rights cases in courts.
Student Engagement and Cases
The staff and students of the VRP will take their classroom activities and put them into practice prosecuting voting rights cases that have been located, developed, and prepared by the VRP students. In 2013 the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the preclearance formula in Section 4b of the Voting Rights Act which effectively eliminated Section 5 of the VRA. Section 5 empowered the U.S. Department of Justice to oversee, monitor, and preclear any changes to the voting process that might negatively affect minority voters in covered jurisdictions. At the same time, there has been increased attention to the debate between voter fraud and voter suppression. Dozens of states across the country have implemented strict voter identification laws, rolled back access to early voting, and added new requirements to be a registered voter. Not since the passage of the VRA itself in 1965 has the country confronted such a debate over voting rights and the health of our democracy. The civil rights community has labored tirelessly to roll back many of these statewide voting rights challenges.
In addition to preparing the next generation of practitioners in this field, the VRP seeks to pursue the cases that don’t necessarily make the front page and which are often ignored by the limited resources of the voting rights community. As statewide efforts to roll back voting rights are challenged in Court, all hands are on deck to ensure that all people have the right to vote. Meanwhile, cities, counties, school districts, and other local governmental units are themselves imposing new burdens on the voter. The vast majority of these policy changes are neither tracked nor challenged. The VRP seeks to address this unmet need by:
- Pursuing local jurisdiction cases that the VRP class develops
- Assigning VRP staff to track and publish voting rights changes imposed by local jurisdictions that require attention by the civil rights community and
- Providing a resource for litigation expertise and expert witness analysis and testimony to members of the private bar who pursue voting rights cases that would otherwise go unchallenged.
The VRP is filing its first voting rights claims this Spring starting with jurisdictions discovered and investigated by the VRP students. These cases will provide real-world litigation experience for students while furthering the development of election and civil rights laws. Students and recent graduates will have the opportunity to prepare the underlying social science research, pleadings, conduct discovery, learn about extensive ESI recovery (Electronically Stored Information) as well as assist in depositions, hearing, trials, and appeals. Recent VRP social science and public policy graduates will, upon graduation, be invited to testify in cases. Recent VRP law graduates will be invited to participate as counsel in discovery, depositions, briefing, trial, and appeals. Also, because of the depth of testimony required for such cases, the VRP will partner with a diverse group of university faculty and graduate students to serve as expert witnesses and advisors.
Finally, the VRP will help expand research opportunities for faculty and graduate students already studying related topics of
inequality and democracy. External grants will provide research funding, and completed research will have a real-world impact through its use in voting rights litigation. As noted, the VRP will publish online its own tracking of voting rights hot spots. In time, this real world information will be utilized by social science and legal academics in their published works. Also, the Center will seek to develop new theories and methods of analysis for employment in voting cases to persuade trial judges and appellate courts to remedy unlawful burdens placed on voters by government agents. Much of the social science expert evidence presented now in voting rights trials was developed over 30 years ago. Courts should be presented with the latest methods and techniques as the law evolves. The VRP will work with UCLA faculty and academics around the country in multiple disciplines to develop these new methods which the VRP will put into practice with its own cases.
The UCLA VRP is uniquely located in a part of the country that is receives scant voting rights protection. The vast majority of voting rights resources are located in the upper East Coast. The Western United States is substantially underserved in programs of this nature. Given their historical treatment of racial and ethnic minorities, voting and civil rights cases are often directed at jurisdictions in the Southern United States. Much work remains to be done in those areas, however jurisdictions throughout the Western United States will benefit from aggressive rights enforcement. Southern California is the natural location for a Center serving voting and civil rights litigation.
Not since the 1960s have voting rights been endangered as they are now. And not since the 1960s have government efforts to protect the voter been so little. The private sector, through private attorneys and academics must meet this new need. Without the government protections that existed, lawyers and experts will have to learn the methods on their own, pursue cases on their own, locate resources to support those cases on their own and prosecute the cases and the myriad of appeals on their own. The vast majority of lawyers and experts who have the level of experience needed to undertake these challenges are nearing retirement. The art of trying a civil rights case and the art of forensic data analysis and persuasive testimony among experts must be developed in the next generation of leaders in this field. While meeting important public needs, the VRP’s primary mission is to supply the next generations of practitioners in this critically important field.
Voting rights projects our team is working on:
- Higginson vs. Poway – Amicus curiae brief by UCLA Voting Rights Project
- New York vs. US Dept of Commerce – Matt Barreto, expert witness for New York
- Texas LULAC vs. Whitley – Chad Dunn, attorney for LULAC
- Harding vs. Dallas County, Chad Dunn, attorney for Dallas, Matt Barreto, expert witness for Dallas
- Veasey vs. Perry (Abbott) on Texas voter ID – Chad Dunn, attorney for Veasey plaintiffs, Matt Barreto, expert witness for Veasey plaintiffs