Just Politics: The perilous legal landscape

In this episode of the podcast, Celina Stewart talks about gerrymandering, restrictive voting laws, and other threats to voting rights.

Some threats to democracy, such as the insurrection on January 6, 2021, are lawless and loud. But others draw on the workings of the law to turn them against democracy itself. In this episode we talk to Celina Stewart, chief counsel and senior director of advocacy and litigation for the League of Women Voters, about those threats. They include gerrymandering, restrictive voting laws, and other measures enacted at the state level and through court decisions—most notoriously, the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby County v. Holder, which gutted portions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

You can learn more about Celina Stewart and her work at the links below:

The following is a transcript of this episode of Just Politics:

Colin Martinez Longmore: Celina Stewart, welcome to Just Politics. Thank you so much for being with us.

Celina Stewart: Hello, hello. Great to be with you, Colin.

Colin: Could you start off just by telling our listeners a little bit about yourself and some of the work that you do with the League of Women Voters?

Celina: Sure. So first and foremost, thanks for having me. I am chief counsel at the League of Women Voters of the U.S., the national office. We have 50 state leagues plus D.C. and then 780 local leagues. So, a lot of folks involved in our operation! And my job in particular, I oversee the advocacy work, both at the federal level and state level, or the folks on my team help build advocacy plans with state leagues.

And then on the litigation, we file all over the country and in federal court, and so we work directly with leagues to file litigation that opens up access, removes barriers, and allows people better access and more consistent access to the franchise.

Colin: That’s so great. With a lot of work that NETWORK does, we’re really excited to speak with you, because we’re committed to making sure that every citizen, regardless of race, can freely and fairly make their voice heard through their vote, which we see as sacred in our democracy. So we’re really grateful for all the work that we know that you do as a real champion of voting rights.

So to start off, I’d like to kind of give our listeners, for any folks who may not be fully keyed-in into the conversation around voting rights or election reform, a broad survey of this landscape of voting rights and election reform. Where are we currently in this moment, and what are the big things that are happening right now?

Celina: Colin, there are so many things happening in this country around voting rights. So here’s the thing, voting rights have been a topic and part of the activist community for a long time. And it’s not just folks like the League, it’s also other organizations and intersections to this work. The faith community is huge, which I know you tap into a lot, which is very, very important.

But there’s so many threats. And what I found about voting rights is the threat has always persisted. The tools that are used each election cycle sometimes change, or sometimes they just get scaled in some way or another.

Voting rights is really about empowering people to engage in their community, to have a voice in selecting the person or the group of people who will represent their interests—everything from the potholes on your street, to whether or not you have access to a good job, whether or not you’re being taxed out the wazoo, whether that’s on your home or your personal taxes, etc. And then at the federal level, it’s about making sure that there are unified rules for how elections are governed around the country so that people will have a similar experience around the country in showing up to vote, and don’t have additional barriers.

Colin: Definitely. I know you mentioned just now, having uniform rules, right? Some of the things that we’ve noticed in our work, especially in our government relations side, when we talk about voting rights, is that there seems to be a huge disparity in our country when it comes to voting rights and access to the vote. There are some states that offer, you know, pretty good protections and access for voters. But then there’s others that seem to be rehashing the same issues that were settled 60 years ago, right? Can you explain the disparity that exists currently in our country? And maybe as a follow-up, we can look at the difference between state and federal voting laws to see how that affects that situation.

Celina: Yeah, so you’re absolutely right. There are places around the country that work to make it easier for folks to vote, and that includes reforms or practices like same-day voter registration—being able to register and vote on the same day. Also things like, during the pandemic it was a huge issue: People did not want to compromise their health and safety to show up to vote. Even though voting is so important, it just needed to be easier.

And so one of the things that happened across the country in the League, I think we had probably about 30 or 40 cases around this in different jurisdictions—making it easy for people to request their ballot and not have them jump through a whole bunch of hoops to get it, allowing people to vote early if you did choose to show up in person, and not consolidating locations at the last minute. We had voters in 2020 and sometimes in 2022 showing up to a location where they were supposed to be able to vote, and it was just like, “This is shut down. Please go to your neighboring voting site.” And it’s like, well, where the heck is that? Where should I go? Many people would look to like their secretary of state website and that wasn’t updated. So, so many people turned to a site that we have, which is Vote411.org, because we were updating that information in the moment as soon as we were getting updates from our folks on the ground.

And so I think, again, there are some places that have practices that make it easier to vote, but there are so many other places where people in power are making it harder for folks to engage around the election and just cast their vote—having to do extra steps and requesting your ballot, having to show up after the election to confirm that you actually voted or voted a particular way, or not even getting the mail in the first place, so having to figure out, “How do I execute my ballot?” So we’re really fighting to make sure that there are easier ways for people to engage or at the very least that people understand what’s required in order to execute their ballot. So voter information, voter services type of work around the country.

Colin: Yeah, definitely. What challenges have you seen, specifically at the state level? And what are the challenges you’ve seen at the federal level?

Celina: In 2022, some people may be aware of this, but in Arizona, we had a situation where there were a lot of ballot boxes, which is great, it’s more accessible for folks. You fill out your ballot, you sign it, you put it in the secret envelope and close it, and then you can go to a ballot box all around your county or state to drop your ballot, so you don’t actually have to go to a physical location. You have a box. And usually there’s some level of security in terms of having surveillance or a recorder camera or whatever there. So what we found in Arizona is that as people were going to drop their ballot, there were people who were armed, saying, “Do you have the right to vote? Should you be here?” And it’s like, hello, who are these folks? Are you an election official? “Well, no, but we wanna make sure that you can vote”—with a gun—“that’s what we’re doing.”

Colin: Wow.

Celina: So, you know, it was problematic and the League stepped in. We got word from our folks like, “Hey, I went to the ballot box and there were people who were armed asking me questions.” We were like, well, that doesn’t sound right. And so we ended up having to file a lawsuit and challenge the folks who were basically the masterminds of sending people out to these ballot boxes and have them stop. We were able to do that, but literally it was days before the election. You reach as many people as you can, but who knows how many people were deterred or scared to go and vote. And so I think for us, it was so important for us to one, stop, get those people out of there as soon as possible, but also communicate through our channels to the community: It’s safe to vote. Please continue to go out and vote, drop it in the ballot box. If you want to go to a site, a voting location, do that, whatever you need to do, but it’s now safe to vote.

So that was a really critical thing that we had to address in 2022, just to ensure that people had access. And that has happened not just in Arizona. It happened in Minnesota in 2020. We’ve seen it across the South, in certain states. And so I think one of the biggest benefits of being a part of the League is we just have such a broad reach across the country. And our folks are nosy in a good way. You know, they are paying attention to what’s happening and calling, whether it’s their state league or the national league, saying, “Hey, should this be happening?” You know, we just encountered this, that, and the third. And so our network is really important for us just getting information that helps us support removing barriers for voters.

Colin: Wow, I mean, that is totally insane—the idea of vigilantes and folks that are armed, you know, trying to intimidate voters from exercising that fundamental right. Is that something, in your time being in this kind of work, that you’ve seen escalate in recent years? Is this something that has been a long-time trend that maybe just in certain areas has been flaring up more? I’m curious to see if there is anything that you’ve noticed in this really alarming situation.

Celina: So I think intimidation has been around for a while. The tactics have changed; I definitely feel like it’s more intensified. But if you think back to Reconstruction period, there were things like poll taxes and literacy tests to discourage people from voting. You didn’t feel equipped to vote, like I have to answer a survey or take a test before I am eligible to vote. So those were deterrents, right? And now we have people showing up and having to encounter armed folks.

And keep in mind where voting happens. Voting happens at schools, it happens at libraries. Sometimes it happens in city or county offices, which is also a problem. Like you don’t want to have a voting location in a police station. Not that people are doing anything wrong, but it could be intimidating. It calls people to second guess whether or not they want to vote. And so I think that the tactics have definitely gotten more intensified, especially in the last, I would say, five to seven years for sure.

But I think one of the most important things is, there’s bad actors out there, but there’s so many people who want to do the right thing, including people who are poll workers, poll observers, and voters in general. We have to keep in mind that voting is such a community action. I’m old, I’m not going to age myself here, but I do remember going into a box and pulling like a little blue curtain, which tells you how long it’s been since I’ve been voting! And it’s a little different now. But either way, it’s a community thing. I used to go vote on election day and see so many of my neighbors, or I would vote early and see my neighbors. But when you’re uncomfortable just going out to do your civic duty, I think that’s a huge problem that we just have to address.

There’s a lot of recent claims about voter fraud. And the reality is that there were, I think, 16 cases in 2022, and none of those prevail. There was no evidence of people voting illegally in broad swath. It happens one or two times. People may not understand their rights, and that happens particularly for returning citizens. You may be on probation, and the rules are different. And so understanding when you are eligible to vote is so critical and so important. But we also want to make sure that we understand that sometimes people make mistakes, correcting the mistakes, and then keeping the engine moving.

Colin: Yeah, it’s such a rare thing, but the heated conversation around it is causing all these scary moments as well. And I love how you mentioned how voting really is this communal act that helps to build community. It’s a civic duty that helps to bolster the local community. And how lies like about these “voter frauds,” you know, I can’t think of the word—craziness, right? It really does fray those social bonds between communities.

Celina: Yeah, because at the end of the day, people who are elected represent us. Like voting is this moment in time, you know, the first Tuesday of November. But what happens after election is equally important because those are now people who make decisions on behalf of your family, on behalf of your life, your access, your ability to move and have potential services around the country. And so it’s a really big deal, not only election day, but the impact of who’s elected.

Colin: Definitely. Well, you mentioned those that represent us and that leads me to my next section that I want to talk about, which is about gerrymandering. I feel like I’ve heard a lot about gerrymandering and maybe I’ve watched a YouTube video or two about it. But I’d love to unpack this a little bit more. What really is gerrymandering, and how does that affect the representation of who our elected officials are, and who we’re voting for?

Celina: Yeah, that’s such an important question. I’m so glad you asked that because I feel like redistricting and gerrymandering is like the pie in the sky. People don’t think it’s really relevant to their every day.

Each year ending in zero—so 10, 20, 30, 40, going on—the census happens. And the purpose of the census is to count every single resident in the United States. I want to make sure I’m making that very clear. Residents, the people who occupy and reside in this country. And the purpose of that is to figure out how many people we have across the country and then to apportion or to take all the people divided by 50 states, etc., to figure out what services are needed to support those communities within that state. And that’s really important because, think about ambulance: So if you don’t have an appropriate count or the count doesn’t reflect what the actual residency is in that particular area, you may not get ambulance support for 11 minutes, which is a really long time. Whereas if you had adequate resources, it comes in three minutes. And so ambulance support, police support, hospital access. Like if you get sick or someone in your family gets sick, will you have access to healthcare? A bed if you need it? etc. All of this breaks down to just resources that folks need every day.

And so once the apportionment piece happens, that really guides how many districts are in each state, and that reflects in the United States House of Representatives—so Congress, right? And that representation is so important. We saw in 2020 that that shifted. Like, New York lost a seat, and other states gained a seat because the population has been shifting.

But from that apportionment and how many districts are in Congress, that shapes how legislators then draw the lines of who is in each district. And that is the really important process there because you want to make sure that, one, the count is accurate, that everyone gets counted. Two, you want to make sure that the lines are drawn to respect communities of interest and other factors that matter to that community. For example, in a particular community, your community of interest may be, “Hey, we are white voters and Black voters and we come together to elect people who care about schools, who care about how our children are educated, who care about healthcare and having particular access to healthcare.” And so it really starts at the census level, but then that census really triggers all of these different things, like where the lines are drawn and how communities are held together.

Colin: I’m glad you mentioned the race aspect to it. Because I imagine things like gerrymandering and even going back and talking about the voter intimidation tactics that you’ve seen, probably has a very disparate effect on different racial communities in an area. I’m curious for you to unpack how you’ve seen the racial justice implications of a lot of these things like gerrymandering and restrictive voting laws and intimidation.

Celina: So that’s what gerrymandering is. The quick and dirty version is, gerrymandering is a way for elected officials to choose who their voters are, which is different than the way it’s supposed to be. Voters are supposed to choose who represents them and not the other way around.

There’s a few streams for gerrymandering. There can be partisan gerrymandering, where you gerrymander folks based on how they identify politically. And then there’s racial gerrymandering. Basically, we want all the Black folks either crowded up or packed into one district, or we want to separate them so they can’t elect their candidate of choice. But that also happens in Latinx communities, rural Hispanic communities, also Native communities. It happens to anyone who is outside of the white structure.

I think that it’s important to understand how gerrymandering works, because when that process happens, it’s so critical for you to raise your voice and say, hey, these lines don’t reflect the community that I’m used to, or that represent my community. We go to church together, we go to school together, we have community festivals together. We are a unit and so we want to stick together, stay together. But we also use this coalition to vote for people who reflect our values. And so I think it’s so critical for people, for citizens, to engage in the redistricting and even census process to make sure that as lines are drawn, that it actually reflects the communities that you live in and serve, and the people who are going to serve you most beneficially.

Colin: Definitely. Thank you for sharing that. Jumping back a little bit as we get to our last couple of questions here, I know you served as legal counsel to Stacey Abrams in her time in Georgia. And first of all, the political nerd in me is like freaking out about that. I’m trying not to make it too obvious, but…

Celina: She has that effect on people!

Colin: We know that a lot of her actions on behalf of voting rights and democracy have been just incredible and affecting not just locally in Georgia, but really nationally as well. And it’s just been a great witness of what it means to be engaged in that kind of work.  I’m curious as to what kind of lessons you learned from being part of that work, what lessons you think all of us can learn from your time being legal counsel to Stacey Abrams, and what forms of actions we can take from there.

Celina: I started out as legal counsel for the caucus. And at the time, Stacey was minority leader, and really just trying to push through a legislative package—not push, gently influence! That’s a better word. But yeah, pushing through a package of bills that benefit the community.

And then redistricting happened in the middle of my term. And so I then became redistricting counsel. And one of the big things we did during that time was having a rural tour. We wanted to make sure that rural communities in Georgia were included, that their voices were heard, and that we understood what their needs were. And so I think one of the things I learned through that process is, one, Stacey Abrams is an amazing politician in terms of maintaining her cool, trying to find bridges and being glue. Knowing when to be glue and when to be a bridge, I think, was a really important lesson during that time.

But also, just the importance of raising your voice. I think so often in my interactions with people, they don’t always recognize how important their perspective is. They think everyone may feel that way, they don’t know the value that it brings. And every voice, collectively, has so much power. And so I would just say one of the things for people is: get engaged. Join your local league. I mean, they’re everywhere, 780 local leagues, you should be able to find one close to you! But join a civic organization that pushes for the things that you think are important. It could be at the local level. It could be at the state level. And there’s also ways to engage at the national level. But get engaged. And get engaged on the things that you care about. Don’t just join voting just because I’m saying it. You may care about the roads, or you may care about your kids’ school books and what they’re able to access. You may care about your daughter having access to certain services. And so I would say engage based on what is most important to you and then find ways to take it up a notch. I think the election, like I said, is very important, but think about what happens after that. I often think it’s more important, or just as important, for you to be in that person’s face saying, “Hey, this is what you promised my community. This is what you said you would do for us. And here’s what’s going to happen if you don’t follow through.” I think those conversations are so important.

But we all have a responsibility to create the democracy that we believe in. It’s not just one person. It’s not just one community’s job to do that. We all have to fight for that. And when any of us are under attack, it means we all are or that we could be. And so it’s so critical for us to engage in the place that makes us comfortable, but also really pushing forward the democracy that we feel like we all deserve.

Colin: Powerful. So as we get to our last question, we end by asking all of our guests this: What are the things that give you hope or sustain you in the work that you do? Especially being so involved in voting rights and elections reform, this is definitely a long-haul journey that you’re on. So we’d love to know what gives you hope and sustains you.

Celina: Voting rights, activism, it can be heavy. You’re always dealing with what feels like problems. And so there are some days where I’m just like, I’m just going to have to have me a glass of Jesus red wine and I’m just going to call it a day. You have days like that.

But I think what motivates me thereafter is things like what happened in 2022 and 2020: More people showed up to vote. We had double-digits increases in the majority of America, which is insane, that people are compelled to participate. And it doesn’t matter how you vote so much; what really matters is that people participate, so that when we get an outcome to an election, that it’s reflective of our values. And whether those values are changing, emerging, expanding, or whatever, it’s a reflection. I think that’s so critical. So that gives me hope, that people are still showing up.

My colleagues obviously give me hope. We have bags under our eyes, but we’re like, we’re fighting. We’re still fighting. I’m like, here, have a Starbucks and let’s keep it moving. So I think that people motivate me more than anything. And this hope for the future: I really do believe that this is one of the greatest countries in the world. And we have so much talent and so much enthusiasm and so much innovation and ingenuity. And I want to continue to see that ingenuity show up as we all fight towards this better democracy.

Colin: Well, we are very grateful for your work and your colleagues’ work and those tireless hours helping to really make our country pluralistic and representative in the way that you’ve mentioned. So thank you so much.

Celina: And thank you for all the work that you all do and all the folks that you reach. The faith community is so, so important to communities. I think you all are a critical piece in this overall puzzle that we’re trying to create. So thank you.

Colin: I’m grateful to be in the work with you. Celina Stewart, thank you so much for being with us at Just Politics.

Celina: Thank you.

Just Politics is sponsored by the Claretian Missionaries.