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Deputy Assistant Attorney General Justin Levitt Delivers Remarks at the National Disability Rights Network’s Annual Conference


Baltimore, MD
United States

Good morning and thank you for that kind introduction.  My name is Justin Levitt and I am a Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice.  It is a great pleasure to be here.  I want to thank NDRN for extending me the gracious invitation to join you today.

When I first started out in my legal career, I was an attorney fighting for civil rights and civil liberties.  I’m back now, a lawyer fighting for civil rights and civil liberties.  In between, before I came to the Department of Justice, I was a law professor at Loyola Law School, a law school with a disability law scholar now at its helm as Dean.  There, I was teaching future lawyers fighting for civil rights and civil liberties.  The biggest difference in these magnificent callings?  Now, I actually pay attention to time limits.  I pledge to keep this short.

In all of this work, I’ve had the remarkable privilege to help make real one of our most fundamental shared values: our commitment to fair elections.  When we cast our ballots, we do so with confidence that that act will be meaningful, in different ways to each of us.  Voting is a way for us to stand up, to speak out and to shape the world we want to live in, together.

It’s also an expression of an amazing common vision.  Wherever we’ve come from, wherever we’re going to, in that moment of casting a ballot, we stand shoulder to shoulder on equal footing.  Or at least, that’s the idea.  We’re still fighting to get it right.  To get it more right than it was before.

I arrived at the Justice Department last September, in the midst of a national remembrance about efforts to get it more right than it was before.  Fifty years ago last March, the country was galvanized by a courageous few.  In the midst of unspeakable violence and unbearable oppression, in the midst of antagonists who should have been protectors — they set out from Selma.  What they sought, with grace and humility, was the right to vote.  That is itself remarkable.  They recognized that there is no greater and no more enduring power than self-governance.

We, the People, seeking the opportunity to shape our own destiny.

On Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, their cause became the cause of the nation.  It was a renewed start of a journey that would lead not only to Montgomery, but to Washington, and the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The seeds sown in Selma have yielded fruit far beyond.  They remind us, constantly, that national civil rights laws provide an essential baseline to making effective our shared, and very special, national commitment to meaningful self-governance – a government of, by and for the people.  A shared commitment to self-governance that is fair and equitable and accessible to all eligible citizens without undue abridgment.  A shared commitment to robust minority protections within a system of majority rule.  We’re still fighting to get it right.  To get it more right than it was before.

Thirty years ago now, the National Council on Disability recommended enactment of a wide ranging civil rights statute serving people with disabilities.  It was neither the first nor the last, but it has become among the most prominent.

Thirty years later, it is still unfortunately true that in communities across our country, too many people with disabilities strive to exercise the franchise in ways others take for granted, and instead find themselves turned away by unnecessary barriers to a private and independent vote.

Each day, we’re working on this.  We’re working on this with you.  Federal law provides for protection and advocacy organizations to “ensure the full participation in the electoral process for individuals with disabilities, including registering to vote, casting a vote and accessing polling places.”  We’re honored to have you as partners in that endeavor, because that’s a goal we enthusiastically share.  The Department of Justice is striving each day to protect, to safeguard and to enforce the right of all eligible voters to cast meaningful and reliable ballots, privately and independently, and to have equitable opportunities to elect the candidates of their choice.

And we have some tools to help.  Several federal statutes all work in concert to ensure that voting procedures, systems and locations remain accessible to people with disabilities.  From registration, to early voting, to election day voting and beyond, officials must ensure equitable access for, and effective communication with, people with disabilities.

I’d just like to walk through an overview of what these statutes provide and what we seek — often alongside your efforts — to ensure. 

Registering to vote is the gateway to the election process.  And federal law has some specific registration provisions for persons with disabilities.  For example, state-funded programs that primarily serve persons with disabilities must also provide the opportunity to register to vote.  That doesn’t just mean making forms available.  It also means assisting citizens in completing voter registration applications, to the same extent that they assist them with the office’s own forms.  And voter registration has to be an offer no matter how someone interacts with these offices: at the office, online, by phone, at home.  If a covered office provides services to a person with a disability at the person’s home, voter registration has to be provided at home as well.

The law also speaks to how officials communicate with voters.  Information about voter registration, offline and online, has to be effective for voters with disabilities.  Online registration systems, where they exist, have to be accessible.  The same is true for information about the content of the ballot, about how to vote early or absentee or at the polls.  The last requires effective communication to persons with disabilities just as it is communicated to others.

Of course, voters ultimately have to cast the ballots they learn about.  Some voters prefer to cast those ballots absentee. And here too, the law provides protection.  Last year, we argued in a case right down the road.  A federal court found that there was an available technology that reliably and securely helped voters with disabilities mark and cast an absentee ballot privately and independently, just as voters without disabilities may. 

New technology made this sort of opportunity possible, if not perfect.  And while every system has to be evaluated in context and on its own individual merits, we were concerned that a state might deny persons with disabilities the reliable aids to participate equitably, contrary to law.  And so when the case got to the court of appeals, we said that when technology is reliable and secure, and helps voters with disabilities achieve privacy and independence just like everyone else, it has to be used.  The court agreed, citing “the basic promise of equality in public services that animates the ADA.”

That basic promise of equality motivates our work on physical sites as well.  In elections today, voters cast their ballots all over the place: in libraries, in schools, in fire stations, in churches, in stores, in private garages.  Federal law puts the responsibility on elections officials to ensure that people with disabilities can access and use the facilities provided.

We have produced a checklist for polling places, to make sure these mandates are followed.  It gives guidance to see whether a polling place is already accessible, or whether it can reasonably be made accessible – and suggests easy solutions for a few common problems.

The checklist is designed for people to use to see if polling places are living up to their obligations.  We welcome your help.  And we’re checking too.  The Civil Rights Division, in partnership with the offices of the U.S. Attorneys, has been conducting assessments of the physical accessibility of polling places.  We have been out already during this primary season and we will be out again in elections throughout the remainder of the year.

At each of these polling places, for every federal election, federal law requires an accessible voting system at each polling place.  It must provide the same opportunity for access and participation, including privacy and independence, that other voters enjoy.

And of course, just having the system isn’t enough.  Accessible voting systems have to be maintained so that they function properly, they have to be actually set up and working at the polls and pollworkers have to be adequately trained to operate them.

If that sounds like a lot of requirements, that’s because there are a lot of requirements.  Elections are complicated, with many moving parts.  Federal law makes sure that they move in ways accessible to the millions of American voters with disabilities as well.  We the People, together.

And there’s one vital protection I can’t leave out.  Most everything that I’ve mentioned so far has to do with systemic relief.  But there’s a very important part of the law that puts individual people and the people they trust, front and center.  And these protections come right back to Selma.

It is essential that the system allow for voting with privacy and independence — for voters with disabilities and voters without.  Sometimes, though, we’d prefer not to have to go it alone.  The Voting Rights Act, born of individuals marching with courage and pride side by side, protects individuals’ choice to vote hand in hand.  It allows any voter whose language or disability poses a hardship in the voting process to receive help, from a trusted person of her choice.  There is only one limitation: the person helping may not be the voter’s employer or an agent of the voter’s employer, or an officer or agent of the voter’s union.  But that’s the only restriction.  If the voter wants help, they can get it from family or nonfamily, familiar or unfamiliar.  To the extent that a lapse in privacy is desirable or unavoidable, the law gives the voter the control to open that door.  And that, in turn, preserves trust in the process.

The protections that I’ve mentioned this morning are vital to our democracy.  And they are just a few of the protections we enforce with respect to the right to vote.  We fight on behalf of servicemembers, working tirelessly to protect those who protect us.  We fight against practices that deny or abridge the right to vote on account of race, and on behalf of those who speak languages other than English.  We fight for registration rolls that are fair and accurate, and for voting systems that are reliable.

We fight for a vision of America that fits our heritage of inclusion, working with ever more vigor to ensure that our elections reliably reflect the electorate, allowing all of us a voice in governing ourselves.  There are better days and worse days, to be sure.  But we never lose sight of the path to our more perfect union.

I have the profound privilege to work – often in partnership with many of you – to protect and safeguard this path, helping eligible voters cast meaningful and reliable ballots, with equitable opportunities to elect the candidates of their choice.  I could not ask for a more rewarding and inspiring responsibility.

I thank you all for the honor of speaking with you this morning.  You have a great conversation ahead.  And I really look forward to all of the energy and activity that that conversation will bring. 

Civil Rights
Updated July 14, 2016