Panel to discuss voting rights and ballot access Sept. 16

Academics Campus & Community

August 26, 2021

The issue of voting rights and ballot access returned to the spotlight following the 2020 election.

Who has access to the ballot has both expanded and contracted throughout America’s history. While the federal government expanded the right to vote to blacks, women and 18-year-olds while also passing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, there are also examples of states pushing back against expanding and easing access to voting.

Now, a panel discussion at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University will look at that very issue in conjunction with Constitution Day.

“The Role of the U.S. Constitution and Voting Rights” is at 6 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 16 at the Founders Room (room 170), Quadrangle Building, Saint John’s University.

The event, which is free and open to the public, is sponsored by the Political Science Department at CSB/SJU.

The panel will consist of Michelle Witte, executive director of the League of Women’s Voters of Minnesota, and Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations Minnesota (CAIR-MN), with the discussion moderated by Claire Haeg, professor of political science at CSB/SJU.

The discussion will examine the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, re-districting, and legislation and lawsuits regarding voting rights across the country in the wake of the 2020 election.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was a landmark bipartisan bill signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson.

“in addition to barring many of the policies and practices that states had been using to limit voting among Blacks and other targeted groups, the Voting Rights Act included provisions that required states and local jurisdictions with a historical pattern of suppressing voting rights based on race to submit changes in their election laws to the U.S. Justice Department for approval.” the Carnegie Corporation of New York wrote.

But in June 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court declared part of the Voting Rights Act as unconstitutional in its Shelby County v. Holder ruling. The Carnegie Corporation wrote that with this decision, “states and localities with a history of suppressing voting rights no longer were required to submit changes in their election laws to the U.S. Justice Department for review.”

This interpretation opened the door for more autonomy at the state and local levels and gave the federal government few tools to ensure fair and just access to the ballots. Several potentially lasting changes are currently under debate as the U.S. faces the challenge of redistricting following the population shifts shown in the 2020 Census and state-level voting legislation changes without the need for preclearance from the U.S. Justice Department. 

Constitution Day, also known as Citizenship Day, is an American holiday honoring the day 39 delegates to the Constitutional Convention signed the United States Constitution on Sept. 17, 1787.

Witte has served as executive director of the League of Women Voters of Minnesota since May 2017. She served on the Board of Education of the South Washington County Schools – the sixth largest school district in Minnesota – from 2014-20 and was the executive director of the Merrill Community Arts Center in Woodbury, Minnesota, from 2010-17.

Hussein has served as executive director of CAIR-MN since January. Prior to joining CAIR-MN, he served as the community liaison officer at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul from 2014-15 and was a planner with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture from 2013-14. He has a bachelor’s degree in planning and community development from St. Cloud (Minnesota) State University.

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Michelle Witte

Jaylani Hussein