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Interview with John Bonifaz, Expert on Democracy and Voting Rights




John Bonifaz is a lawyer who uses his knowledge of the US Constitution to make sure people can vote and that their vote counts. He has co-founded two organizations: Free Speech for People, where he serves as president, and the National Voting Rights Institute. He believes it hurts our democracy to have wealthy individuals and corporations influencing and distorting elections. In 1999, he received a MacArthur Fellowship, also known as a “genius” grant, for his work on voting rights. (That’s the same award Lin Manuel Miranda received in 2015!)

You’ve founded two organizations focused on laws that relate to voting, the National Voting Rights Institute and Free Speech for People. Can you compare their areas of focus and approach?

I founded the National Voting Rights Institute in 1994 with the primary initial focus on challenging our nation’s campaign finance system as the newest barrier to our right to vote. Former Constitutional Law Professor Jamie Raskin – now Congressman Jamie Raskin of Maryland – and I had co-authored two law review articles arguing that the current system of big money in politics operates as an exclusionary “wealth primary” which blocks non-wealthy voters and candidates from equal and meaningful participation in the political process, in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution. We litigated several wealth primary cases at the National Voting Rights Institute, and we led a new fight in the courts for revisiting the US Supreme Court’s 1976 ruling in Buckley v. Valeo which equated money with speech and sanctioned unlimited campaign spending in our elections.

I co-founded Free Speech For People with attorney Jeff Clements in 2010 on the day of the US Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. FEC to challenge the decision and the doctrines underlying the decision both through a constitutional amendment campaign and through a campaign in the courts. We have served as a leading force on both fronts to confront big money in politics and unchecked corporate power and, since January 2017, we have also led new initiatives to challenge the unprecedented corruption of the presidency. While the National Voting Rights Institute focused primarily on litigation work, Free Speech For People, in addition to litigation, has also engaged in public education and organizing work to advance its overall mission. And, while the National Voting Rights Institute did not press for a constitutional amendment to overturn the Buckley ruling, Free Speech For People has catalyzed and led a national campaign for a 28th Amendment which would overturn both the Citizens United and Buckley rulings and reclaim our democracy.

Think back to when you were in middle school. What did you think you’d be doing with your life? Did you know you’d be going to law school? When and how did you decide to use your law degree in this way?

When I was in middle school, I did not know I would want to go to law school. However, I did become active in social change work at that time. I started a chapter at my school of a national network called Children’s Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and we organized in support of a freeze on the making of nuclear weapons. I knew I wanted to be involved in social change work starting at that time, but I did not know the direction that work would take me. In fact, during high school I was initially focused on wanting to be a journalist.

I decided in my third year of law school that I wanted to use my law degree in the way I have been using it since that time. I knew going into law school that I wanted to be a public interest lawyer, but in the summer prior to my third year in law school, I learned of a memorandum written by activists from various social change movements who had come together for a conference in Waveland, Mississippi in 1990 to discuss and strategize how to confront the system of big money in politics. Dr. Gwen Patton, a longtime civil rights worker from Montgomery, Alabama, said at that conference: “We have fought and died for the right to vote. But what good is that right if we do not have candidates to vote for? Getting private money out of politics is the unfinished business of the Voting Rights Movement.”

Randy Kehler, a longtime peace and justice activist and a family friend, was one of the conveners of that conference, and he sent me a copy of the memorandum that emerged from that gathering which focused on the question Dr. Patton had raised. I decided then to focus my third-year paper in law school on that question of how we could challenge the system of big money in politics on voting rights grounds, which led to the two law review articles then-Professor Raskin and I co-authored – and which eventually led to my founding of the National Voting Rights Institute.

What can young people who are still not old enough to vote do to advance voting rights and/or make the world a better, more just place?

There are so many things young people can do in the field of voting rights and in the overall work to build a better world. First, the world needs young people to speak up and to demand to be heard. Young people are our future leaders. Even if you are too young to vote, you can still fight for the rights of all voters to participate in the electoral process on an equal basis.

Young people can study prior movements which included many young participants, such as the Civil Rights Movement. Young people can hold educational events in their schools on voting rights issues, write letters to the local newspaper, contact your Members of Congress, state legislators, and local elected officials, show up at marches seeking to protect and defend our democracy, organize such marches, start a group that will continue to work on these issues, contact other groups that are doing the same thing and build new alliances, invite speakers to your school who can help support your educational and organizing work, ask your teachers to cover these subjects in their classes, and so much more. And, young people can do this not just on voting rights issues, but on any issue, from climate change to education, health care to economic justice, questions of war and peace, and many other issues impacting our communities, our nation, and our world.

There is power in people coming together to fight for change, and that power is all the more inspiring when young people are doing it and making it happen.

Do you think President Trump might be impeached?

I think Trump will be impeached if enough people from all over the country rise up and demand that it happen. Right now, too many people are silent on the impeachment question – or, even worse, they think that we do not have enough evidence to justify impeachment proceedings. The evidence of Trump’s abuse of power and abuse of the public trust is overwhelming – and for those reading your blog who want to learn more, they can go to the homepage of our website www.freespeechforpeople.org to access a new extensive analysis on the legal grounds for an impeachment investigation of Trump. If we believe in our Constitution and our democracy, if we believe in the fundamental principle that no one is above the law, not even the President of the United States, then we must stand up together to confront this constitutional crisis and demand that our Members of Congress start impeachment proceedings now against this president.

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