This interview is reproduced from Polling Election Lawyers, a feature on who election lawyers are and why they do what they do in the January/February 2022 issue of The Practice from the Center on the Legal Profession at Harvard Law School. Read the full interview below:
Guy-Uriel E. Charles, Harvard Law School
Guy-Uriel Charles is the Charles Ogletree, Jr. Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice. He previously taught at Duke Law School, where he held the Edward and Ellen Schwarzman Professorship of Law and founded the Duke Law Center on Law, Race and Politics. He teaches and writes about election law, race and law, constitutional law, and civil procedure. Learn more about Professor Charles here.
What drew you to your particular path in election law? As part of this, how has being an election law professor changed since you began your career?
I took an election law class in law school, and I was also pursuing a Ph.D. in political science. Election law combined all of the issues that interested me: race, equality, political theory, constitutional law, and civil rights. In many ways, law structured how we conduct our politics; our politics is defined as the ways in which individuals try to get what they need. I started teaching in the fall of 2000 during what turned out to be the most contested presidential election in the modern history of the United States. I was also teaching prior to 2000 at a time when few law schools cared about election law. But all of a sudden, election law became important, and really the field came of age after the fall of 2000.
“The country as a whole no longer believes that the big problem in voting is racism. The book argues that we need to build a new consensus around voting,” says Guy-Uriel Charles.
You’re currently working on a book on voting rights and the Voting Rights Act with Luis Fuentes-Rohwer titled The American Promise: Rethinking Voting Rights Law and Policy for a Divided America. What major questions and ideas are you exploring?
The book has three aims. First, to help us understand why the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has been so successful. Why did this statute in many ways do what a constitutional amendment, the 15th Amendment, did not do? Second, why has the VRA declined? Or more precisely, how much of the VRA’s decline is a function of curtailment by the Supreme Court? Third, where should we go from here? The book argues that the VRA was successful primarily because the country came to believe that racism in voting was a significant problem. The violent events on the Edmund Pettus Bridge is symbolic of how the country understood racism and also how that type of violent racism served as an impetus for the VRA. The court, Congress, and the executive branch were united in shifting political power from the states to the federal government and allowing the federal government to provide oversight of the states’ electoral process, specifically the states of the south. The VRA has declined because the consensus around racism has dissolved. The country as a whole no longer believes that the big problem in voting is racism. The book argues that we need to build a new consensus around voting. The new direction should make the case for universal political participation and universal norms, particularly around federal elections.
“Election law is what makes it possible for us to be a self-governing people,” says Charles.
As an election law academic, what do you see as the biggest challenges and opportunities for the field—in practice, in policy, or in legal research and beyond—in the next year, the next two years, and the decade ahead?
We’re in a unique moment in American democracy. We’re at a time in which some leading politicians, particularly a former president, would have ignored the results of a presidential election because he lost, and perhaps he thought he lost unfairly. Just a year ago, we witnessed a mob storm the Capitol because they thought their candidate was unfairly denied the election. We are also worried that some election administration officials may be willing to ignore election results if their preferred candidate does not win. These are all reasons to worry. At the same time, we have made tremendous progress in making voting more accessible and easier for millions of Americans. There are currently ideas on the table to make voting universal that would never be considered seriously 10 years ago. There is an energy around voting rights that we have not seen in 50 years, and this energy is multiracial, multigenerational, and multiregional. Thus, while there are a lot of reasons to worry, there are also a lot of reasons to be optimistic.
What drives you, personally, to pursue election law scholarship? What impact do you hope your research has?
Election law is what makes it possible for us to be a self-governing people. It is what makes it easier for us to address inequality of various sorts. I have seen my ideas go from academia to the political process. Making a difference in our society is what drives me.