Public Interest Attorneys Are Key To Preserving Voting Rights

By Verna Williams | May 17, 2024, 5:09 PM EDT ·

Verna Williams
Verna Williams
With Super Tuesday in the rearview mirror and the national conventions still months away, it is far too easy to ignore news of the various state lawmakers across our nation continuing to pass legislation purportedly aimed at bolstering election security, but that have the practical effect of suppressing voting rights — particularly within under-resourced communities.

Take South Carolina for example.

While the state is abuzz after clinching a National Collegiate Athletic Association championship, one piece of news from March feels like a distant memory. The U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina ruled in Alexander v. The South Carolina State Conference of the NAACP that the state could use a map of congressional districts that it had previously deemed unconstitutionally gerrymandered in this year's election.[1]

This is to say nothing of the fact that last year 14 states passed laws that have the effect of restricting or limiting voting access,[2] including North Carolina, which eliminated mail drop boxes, shortened the period to return mail-in ballots and restricted same-day voter registration.[3]

We can't turn our heads away from the steady erosion of voting rights over the last several years, which shows just how fragile our democracy is and reveals the dire situation our country is in.

Every eligible voter deserves the right to cast their ballot without impediment. These voter suppression tactics are a threat to our democracy.

Public interest lawyers serve as bulwarks against such antidemocratic actions. These attorneys work in nonprofit organizations, public interest law firms or the government to help safeguard our democratic institutions through voter education, legislative advocacy and litigation. It's critical work, but there are just not enough of them.

The American Bar Association recently reported that fewer than 1% of all the lawyers in the U.S. are paid legal aid services attorneys. This alarming statistic should worry us all.[4]

When people cannot access affordable legal services, their civil legal needs go unmet, leaving the most vulnerable communities — because of poverty, race or immigration status, for example — without vital assistance to protect their rights.

For too many people, this access to justice gap means the promise of equal justice is ephemeral at best, generating distrust in the rule of law, as well as our system of government. One way out of this bind is by funding more public interest attorneys.

Public interest attorneys work for legal service providers, nonprofits and government agencies that focus their practice on helping low-income, marginalized or vulnerable populations. Their work spans across a wide range of issue areas — from housing and domestic violence to veterans' rights, immigration and more.

In the 1990s, I was an attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice's voting rights section. At that time, a strong Voting Rights Act allowed us to stop many discriminatory voting regulations in their tracks.

In the three decades since, the U.S. Supreme Court has dramatically weakened the VRA and limited its ability to eradicate racial discrimination in voting.

Most recently, taking its cue from the Supreme Court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit ruled in January in NAACP v. Arkansas Board of Apportionment that only the U.S. attorney general may file suits for alleged violations of the VRA.

If allowed to stand — or worse, if other federal appeals courts follow this disastrous path — individual voters would have to depend solely upon the DOJ to challenge restrictive voter ID laws, reduced early voting opportunities or regulations designed to make voting as difficult as possible.

A March report by the Brennan Center for Justice[5] shows that the racial voter turnout gap has been drastically increasing since the Supreme Court curtailed the Voting Rights Act in its 2013 decision in Shelby Counter v. Holder.[6] To stay ahead in such a whack-a-mole landscape requires refortifying the VRA and, importantly, enough attorneys to enforce the right to vote.

But a lack of opportunities and funding in public interest law paired with educational debt can make a career in public interest law seem more like a fantasy than reality.

That's where programs like public service loan forgiveness, the only educational debt program specifically targeted at public service professionals, play a critical role. Since 2021, 871,000 borrowers have earned PSLF for a total debt for total debt relief of $62.5 billion.[7]

It's encouraging to see the Biden administration continue to seek reform for critical debt programs like PSLF, but it is imperative that the legal community educate their employees on PSLF to recruit and retain passionate public service professionals for the benefit of our nation.

We also recognize that the access to justice crisis is so vast that even if every single lawyer in the country did pro bono work, needs still would be unmet. That means we need other professionals to step up.

Some states have begun to establish legal paraprofessional licensing programs to allow nonlawyer paraprofessionals to represent clients in discrete areas of law.

If the medical community can develop new ways to provide care by investing in more professionals like nurse practitioners, what's stopping us from developing a new cadre of legal service providers?

When viewed in the current context of legal challenges to the VRA, it is clear public interest attorneys are needed to protect access to justice and the voting rights of communities everywhere.

While larger investments in public interest attorneys are always important, in 2024, supporting lawyers and advocates who strengthen our democracy is more vital than ever. Their efforts are critical to rebuilding and maintaining trust and confidence in the political process.

Making this investment now will help all voices be heard come Nov. 5.

Verna Williams is CEO at Equal Justice Works. She previously served as dean of the University of Cincinnati College of Law.

Disclosure: Equal Justice Works is a member of the PSLF Coalition.

"Perspectives" is a regular feature written by guest authors on access to justice issues. To pitch article ideas, email

The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of their employer, its clients, or Portfolio Media Inc., or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.








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