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Michigan Law Alumni Work to Protect Voting Rights Nationwide

By Jenny Whalen
Nov. 3, 2014

Eunice Hyon Min Rho, '06, is something of a paradox. An advocacy and policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, Rho's work is dedicated to protecting voting rights across the U.S., but Rho herself has never voted in an American election.

The reason? She's Canadian.

"The secret is out, I'm not an American citizen. I can't vote," Rho said. But she can work to ensure that every eligible U.S. citizen has the opportunity and freedom to do so.

"When I was younger, I felt so powerless every election cycle," said Rho, who followed the 2000 Bush-Gore election as an undergraduate at Columbia University. "My desire to get involved in voting rights work first as a volunteer and later as a career really came from that sense of powerlessness. That someone should try to limit your right to vote is offensive."

Rho is one of numerous Michigan Law graduates now working in the area of voting rights and election law. They work as trial attorneys in the Voting Section of the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Department of Justice, counsels at the Brennan Center for Justice, officials at all levels of government, and, in the case of Alan Martinson, '08, as Counsel with the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Like Rho, Martinson's interest in voting rights and election law began early and gained momentum during law school.

His experiences as co-chair for the Michigan Election Law Project, poll worker, student of Prof. Ellen Katz, and contributor to the Michigan Journal of Law Reform​ only reaffirmed his interest in pursuing a career in this area.

Now with the Lawyers' Committee's Legal Mobilization Project, much of his work deals directly with the National Voter Registration Act and Voting Rights Act.

"The National Voter Registration Act requires, among other things, that public assistance agencies must provide voter registration services for people applying for benefits. It's a really serious problem in many states with agencies not doing this, or doing an inadequate job. I've worked on litigation as well as informal negotiations with states to improve those processes," said Martinson, who will also try a Voting Rights Act case in Louisiana later this month.

Meanwhile at the ACLU, Rho is focused on strategy, specifically what her organization can do state-by-state to ensure that neither law nor politicians get in the way of eligible voters going to the polls in 2015.

"Election outcomes have a huge influence on what we can do," Rho said. "We watch them closely. We want to know who is in power and who is out. We're in the process of assessing where there are opportunities, threats, and what we need to do in advance of January. It's a lot of analysis and preparation."

Although their respective work varies, Rho and Martinson share an identical sentiment when it comes to U.S. suffrage: it must be protected.

"The year 2011 was a high-water mark for voter suppression legislation," Rho said. "States passed very restrictive voter ID laws, reduced the availability of early voting, and placed limits on voter registration drives. It has become fairly evident that these laws are designed to disadvantage certain segments of the population, such as racial minorities, the elderly, and low-income residents.”

Once again Rho and Martinson agree. These actions cannot go unchallenged.

"Whether it is due to threats caused by administrative problems, or intentional efforts to disenfranchise people, whatever the threat is," Martinson said, "the goal of our work is to ensure that all people who are eligible to vote are able exercise that right effectively."

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