ABA founds Task Force for American Democracy

Mary Smith, the current ABA president and first Indigenous women to hold the role, discusses the task force’s establishment. // Photo courtesy of the ABA Task Force for American Democracy

On Tuesday, Feb. 13, attorneys, retirees, nonprofit representatives and politicians alike gathered at the State Bar of Georgia for the first American Bar Association (ABA) Task Force for American Democracy. The event, aimed to inform attendees of the minutiae of civic processes and elections, was geared towards active attorneys and the part they can play in upholding the law. 

The event began with introductions from those organizing the event, such as Linda A. Klein, Senior Managing Shareholder at Baker Donelson and former ABA president, as well as J. Antonio DelCampo, attorney at DelCampo Grayson Lopez and the first Hispanic ABA president.  

The event officially commenced with brief speeches from current ABA President Mary Smith, the first Indigenous woman to serve in this role, and Task Force co-chair Judge J. Michael Luttig. President Smith spoke about her decision to begin the Task Force, which eventually will be piloted in multiple cities
across the United States. 

“We decided to start the very first one here, in Georgia, because as we, many of you, have lived it; this is kind of ground zero for democracy,” she said.

Judge Luttig discussed the precarious position of the United States’ democratic institutions and the importance of listening to the American people. He emphasized how American officials, like himself, have an obligation to save America’s democracy.

“Ultimately, the responsibility of the American officials is to find these solutions and execute them, to ensure that we bring back American democracy to the point that it was not too long ago, the envy of all the world,” Luttig said.

Judge Luttig also called the lawyers of America to action, describing lawyers and the ABA to be the “single best entity” to lead efforts of this nature.

Following these introductory speeches and a brief introduction from Ryan Germany, partner at Gilbert, Harrell, Sumerford & Martin, P.C. and former general counsel to former Georgia Secretary of State and current Georgia Governor Brian Kemp and current Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger from 2014 to 2023, Raffensperger himself took the stage. He spoke highly of the Georgia elections process and policies.

In his commentaries, he cited the Heritage Foundation, a notably conservative think tank, as evidence that Georgia elections are the best in the country. However, he also condemned election fraud claims and faulted voters for former president Donald Trump’s 2020 presidential election loss.

“33,000 Republican voters who voted in the June 2020 primary never came out to vote in the fall election of 2020. Didn’t come out at all. Whose fault is that? It’s not mine, because we don’t run elections. That’s the campaign’s [fault],” he said.

Raffensperger also attributed Georgia’s high voter turnout in the 2022 midterm elections to trust and confidence in the system and described the various changes his office made while in power.

“To think about what we do now, we have new voting machines, verifiable paper ballots. Some people say ‘Well, it needs to be handmarked, we have valid marking devices.’ That’s a discussion for another day,” Raffensperger said. “We outlawed ballot harvesting. We modeled our law after Arizona, which was upheld by the Supreme Court. We have prioritized clean voter rolls, and we’ve done that objectively.”

The main feature of the conference consisted of two panels, the first titled “What to Expect in 2024: Nuts and Bolts of Election Administration,” and the second “Conversation on Democracy: How it Affects All of Us.”

The first panel discussed the specifics of election administration, the perspectives of state election officials, system integrity and security, transparency and accessibility. Panel members included moderator David Becker, founder and executive director of the Center for Election Innovation & Research, panelist Lynn Bailey, retired executive director of the Augusta-Richmond County Board of Elections and Registration and founder of Bailey Election Consulting Services, Shauna Dozier, elections director for Clayton County Board of Elections and Registration, Blake Evans, elections director for the Georgia Secretary of State Elections Divisions and Judge Jonathan Fordham, probate judge and elections superintendent in Bleckley County, Ga. 

Both Becker and Evans discussed the importance and accuracy of voter lists. Evans specified the various options available for identification when absentee ballot voting, such as a driver’s license number, a state-issued identification (ID) number and even a social security number. He also explained statistics related to voter records, including the percentage of active voter records that have a valid state ID number associated with them.

“We’re talking about an objective measure of driver’s license number to be able to be used for that … it’s over 98%. So when you talk about almost 8 million registered voters, you’re pretty close at that point,” Evans said.

Dozier emphasized her confidence in the checks used for digital ballots, describing the various tests ensuring that voting equipment is working well, such as cameras watching the equipment in warehouses. Bailey corroborated this message, describing the chore of hand-counting ballots, which summed to 87,530 pieces of paper one election. She went into depth about risk-limiting audits, a process of randomly selecting a precinct and hand-counting votes. This investigation revealed a variance of just five counts between digital ballot-counting and hand-counting.

Bailey continued by highlighting  the importance of transparency, as well as getting to know who the trusted voices are in local communities. In a similar vein, Dozier described the importance of communities and voter education, as well as the role of social media in this process. She mentioned high school voter registration within the Clayton County education system and other attempts to build trust.

“High school voter registration month is coming up in April, so we deputize teachers and college professors within our county, and they help build those relationships in the community as well,” Dozier said.

The second panel focused more on threats to democracy and election integrity and partisan influence in the justice system. Panel members included moderator Andrew Morse, president and publisher at the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Jason Carter, partner at Bondurant, Mixson and Elmore, LLP and chair of the Carter Center’s board of trustees, Hon. Larry D. Thompson, Counsel at Finch McRanie, LLP and former General Counsel for PepsiCo and Carly Fiorina, former Republican presidential candidate and National Honorary Chair at the Virginia 250 Commission, who joined virtually. 

Larry Thompson discussed the real consequences of upholding norms in law, using former Republican Georgia State Representative BJay Pak as an example. He also expressed his faith in the Supreme Court of the United States and its ability to uphold the law.

“I know every member of the Supreme Court, except for Amy Coney Barrett … I don’t agree with a number of their philosophies. But I believe, I really believe that eight of the nine that I know strongly adhere to the rule of law, strongly believe in our democratic principles,” Thompson said.

Carter described how “transparency is an important concept when it comes to electoral systems.” He continued on to describe how undermining of the legal process can be detrimental, especially when people’s trust erodes, exposing a desire for trustworthy elections processes.

“Fundamentally, what people desire is faith in the process, and that faith has to be built. And then it has to be maintained. And once it gets lost, it is incredibly difficult to get it back, particularly in this day and age where you have so much information out there in the world,” Carter said.

Fiorina made strong claims about her distaste for most of the current Republican Presidential candidates, referring to their support of Trump in spite of his multiple criminal convictions as “un-American.” 

She explained how politicians follow the polls and are in pursuit of power, as well as how that can contribute to distrust in elections. She also described how history tells us that proximity to power corrupts over time and encouraged citizens to stay active.

Attendees found the event to be both informative and impactful, providing a valuable opportunity to network with fellow influential figures capable of catalyzing positive change. Retired attorney Dan Hackney spoke of his experience in attending the task force.

“This conference reinforced my strong belief that the operation of our elections is fundamentally safe and secure,” he said.