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Rutgers Law students fight to protect voting rights in Camden

Chris Markos, a student at Rutgers School of Law - Camden, is one of two student representatives for  the Voters’ Rights Project accepting the Exemplary Public Service Award at the 2009 Equal Justice Works Conference and Career Fair on October 24. Chris shares his thoughts in this guest post.

[caption id="attachment_948" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Chris Markos & Noah Marlier, Voters' Rights Project"]Chris Markos & Noah Marlier, Voters' Rights Project[/caption] The selection of the Voters’ Rights Project for the 2009 Exemplary Public Service Award for a Student Group was humbling news, but you’re probably wondering- what is the Voters’ Rights Project? So first, some history. In 2004, four law students at Rutgers School of Law-Camden recognized the lack of resources for voter information and education in Camden, New Jersey.  With a presidential election impending, the students--Jennifer Everts, Nathaniel Work, Bridget Coyne and Robert O'Brien-- developed a new pro bono project for the law school that focused on informing Camden voters of their rights and enforcing New Jersey election laws. During that first year, the organization created and staffed a voters’ rights emergency line for election day and placed scores of law students and professors near polling places in the city of Camden to inform the voters about their rights. The program continued for three years under that same model.  Students and faculty -- following the Attorney General’s guidelines -- stood at least 100 feet from the polls, wearing smocks that identified their roles, and waiting to help anyone who had encountered problems inside the polls. In fall 2007, Michelle Westcoat and Conor Wilson - who changed the name of the program to the Voters’ Rights Project (VRP) - envisioned new possibilities for the program  and  negotiated with the Camden County Board of Elections (BOE) to move our volunteers from 100 feet outside the polls to inside the polling place. That new role positioned law students as “Educational Observers,” who could record detailed statistics on who was voting and if they experienced any problems while voting, the quality of the polling location, and Election workers’ adherence -- or non-adherence -- to New Jersey statutes on voting.  While the volunteers could no longer approach or speak to voters, the information they gathered enabled the program to create a detailed report, delivered to the Board of Elections, which suggested necessary improvements to the voting experience in Camden.  That report was the first tangible record of the labor of four years of students fighting the legal and circumstantial disenfranchisement of voters in Camden.  That year, students participated as Educational Observers in both the November Election and the February Primary Election. Now, before I go on, there is something you should know about Camden, New Jersey. Once affluent, the former home of Walt Whitman is now the poorest city in the United States, with a median income of $18,000.[1] About 70% of the city’s voting-age population is registered to vote.  In 2007, 8% of the voting-age population voted for city council. Yes, just eight percent. A stronger showing was made in the 2004 Presidential Election, when 36% of the voting-age population cast ballots.[2] Back to the story.  In Spring 2008, during our final weeks as 1Ls and with the presidential election looming on the horizon, Noah Marlier and I assumed the leadership of VRP. Noah and I came to VRP for different reasons. Noah was interested in politics.  I was interested in civil rights.  But we were both dedicated to promoting public interest at the law school and in our community, and that is what we were most successful in. In the weeks leading up to the 2008 Presidential Election, we approached Melissa Osorio, also a 2L at the time who was well connected to Camden's various neighborhoods.   Noah's experience with registering voters as a 1L also helped as we organized law students to go out in groups to all over Camden - community fairs, churches, court houses - to register voters. This was VRP's first full-fledged voter registration effort.  We handed out countless registration forms and encouraged people to distribute them to their friends and neighbors.  We distributed information about how and where to vote. When you work in an area such as Camden, where residents change addresses often, this last bit of information is invaluable; we found that many of the registered voters we talked to were not living at the address at which they had registered. On Election Day, we sent almost 100 students into Camden.  Our Educational Observers were at every single polling place in Camden at one point or another during the day.  Our first volunteers were there when the polls opened at 6 a.m. and the last ones were there until they closed at 8 p.m., and at the end of the day we had assembled another massive round of detailed data. Nothing could have prepared us for Election Day.  Noah and I answered calls throughout the day from worried volunteers observing overwhelmed polling places.  In a city with such historically low voter turnout, the enthusiasm for the ballot on this day was simply inspiring.  But the inability to respond to problems as they arose through the day - our volunteers are just observers, after all - inspired us to seek new opportunities for our volunteers. Building on our relationship with the BOE, we negotiated a new role for our volunteers to compliment the role of our Educational Observers. This year, the Board of Elections will train our law students to be Election Day Deputies, with authority to enforce the election code at the polls.  Our very first law student deputies will be trained in the coming weeks, ready for New Jersey’s upcoming gubernatorial election. VRP is also about legacy.  This project was handed to Noah and me only after countless hours of toil by the leaders who came before us.  Recognizing the importance of this legacy and the continuity of leadership, we interviewed and selected Kate Reilly and Erik Solivan, now 2Ls, to help out this year and take over most of the day-to-day responsibilities.  Our leadership model now ensures two experienced 3Ls helping two new 2L leaders run the smoothest project we can, and so far it has been incredible. And that is the story of VRP. For all that VRP accomplished, from its inception through last year, there remains much to do.  How can we encourage increased voter participation in less exciting years?   How do we encourage student participation in less exciting years?  Can our efforts ever ameliorate the systemic poverty that cripples this city? My hope is that we can. Here is another great thing about VRP.  This is the only project at Rutgers School of Law - Camden that first-semester 1Ls are allowed to participate in; it is the gateway to other public interest and pro bono opportunities here.  Since our registration events are small, 1Ls get to know some like-minded 2Ls and 3Ls.  Many of the students who volunteer for VRP come back to other public interest and pro bono projects at our law school.  And not only does VRP foster a spirit of camaraderie and enthusiasm for public interest law, but we make our presence very known throughout the city.   We are both amazed and humbled by VRP’s ability to draw so many student volunteers and leaders, and we look forward to its continuing development in serving the changing needs of the population of Camden.  For all its growth, VRP’s potential is still just extraordinary. And lastly, we must thank our sine qua non: the hundreds of alumni and current student volunteers over the years, the support of the deans, and the many student leaders who came before us.  This award belongs to them.
[1] As of 2006, according to the U.S. Census and www.camconnect.org/documents/poverty_handout.pdf. [2] Actual numbers for the 2008 Presidential Election have not yet been compiled.
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