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Professor Janai S. Nelson Brings Current Election Law Issues into Sharper Focus

Friday, November 1, 2013

On Tuesday, November 5, 2013, millions of Americans will have the opportunity to make their voice heard by voting to elect or reelect local officials ─ mayors, county executives, town supervisors, council members, and judges. The right to vote is significant in its influence on everyday life in our communities and as a hallmark of the freedoms that Americans have struggled to establish and preserve.

Janai S. Nelson, Professor of Law and Associate Dean for Faculty Scholarship at St. John’s, is an expert on election law who focuses her research in the field on voting rights,  race and democracy, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Her scholarship offers a vital link between legal theory and national debate on this important topic. Sharing her insights in the public forum, Professor Nelson has published opinion pieces on a range of election law topics, including:

    A call for a right-to-vote amendment on Constitution Day (Reuters)
    King’s deferred ‘Dream’ of democracy (Reuters)
    Gift or Gotcha: What to Make of Scalia's Arizona Opinion (The Huffington Post)
    Making sure race is considered (Reuters)

In February 2013, the United States Supreme Court heard Shelby County v. Holder, a case testing the constitutionality of a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which is hailed as one of the most important civil rights laws in the country.  As part of a group of election law scholars,

Professor Nelson submitted an amicus curiae brief for the Supreme Court to consider in the case, arguing in their brief that the Court should uphold Section 5 as part of Congress’s authority under the Elections Clause of the U.S. Constitution, in addition to Congress’s enforcement powers under the 14th and 15th Amendments. In a 5-to-4 vote, the Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act as unconstitutional, thereby disabling Section 5 and its mandatory government oversight of jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination in voting. Section 4 dictated which states must receive clearance from the Justice Department or a federal court in Washington before implementing new voting procedures.  

Recently, Professor Nelson  joined in an amicus brief in North Carolina’s latest racial gerrymandering challenge. The case, Dickson v. Rucho, is pending before the state’s Supreme Court.  The brief calls for the court to correctly interpret Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, asserting that the North Carolina General Assembly’s redistricting plan explicitly segregated North Carolina’s citizens into districts based on race. This resulted in the packing of African Americans into fewer districts, diluting their voting strength in violation of the Act.  

Professor Nelson sees her participation in these cases, and her broader election law scholarship, as a natural outgrowth of the expertise in the Voting Rights Act she developed as the former Director of Political Participation at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. As the Law School’s inaugural Granito Scholar, Professor Nelson took a one-semester leave from teaching in 2012 to pursue her Voting Rights Act research and scholarship.

“The Voting Rights Act has remained a beacon of racial progress in a stormy sea of retrenchment,” Professor Nelson said. “However, several Supreme Court cases have narrowed the legal advances we’ve made as a nation in this arena. The immediate step we can take is to reverse the continuing assault on voting rights and expand participation in our democracy. Rehabilitating the Voting Rights Act of 1965, following the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which struck down one of the law’s most important provisions, should be at the top of this agenda.”  Her current research is focused on ways to use the remaining provisions of the Voting Rights Act to combat modern voting barriers such as stringent voter ID laws, limited voting periods, and encumbered voter registration processes.