Students Drive Push for Voting Rights Amid COVID-19 Outbreak

April 3, 2020
Sonni Waknin ’20 (left) and Michael Cohen ’21
Sonni Waknin ’20 (left) and Michael Cohen ’21 are UCLA Voting Rights Project fellows.

Two UCLA School of Law students have contributed to a new report that recommends methods of securing voting rights during the novel coronavirus pandemic that is striking as the November 2020 election approaches.

Michael Cohen ’21 and Sonni Waknin ’20 are fellows with the UCLA Voting Rights Project, which is run by the Latino Policy and Politics Initiative at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. With co-authors including project leaders Matt Barreto and Chad Dunn, Cohen and Waknin published the report, “Protecting Democracy: Implementing Equal and Safe Access to the Ballot Box During a Global Pandemic,” in late March and circulated it to members of Congress who are working on legislation aimed at ensuring a viable and fair election.

Their work is a guide for local, state and national legislators and aims to educate the public on the safety and security of vote-by-mail. Specific recommendations include making voting by mail available to all Americans; creating in-person voting centers that maintain physical distancing; securing ballot drop-off centers; and enacting reasonable measures to ensure security and equity in voting, including efforts to protect the rights of people who speak minority languages, do not have home addresses or do not know when their mail-in ballots are rejected due to signature mismatching. Many of those issues disproportionately impact voters who are younger or people of color.

The project kicked off as the pandemic mounted and the students and their collaborators jumped into action, building the expansive paper to address areas where they found little in the way of policy analysis. For Cohen and Waknin, who have deep backgrounds in political theory and advocacy and will continue to work with the project in the months ahead, that meant constant communication from great distances during Spring Break.

“We have spent more time talking with one another than our own families during this time,” they report from their homes in Northern California and Arizona. “For both of us, this has been one of the best training experiences during our time in law school. We had the opportunity not just to scrutinize case law and legislation but to situate our work within a broader push to vitalize our democracy in a time of crisis.”

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