Voters’ Rights Project: Connecting Camden Voters to the Polls for 10 Years

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The right to vote is powerful, even more so in a city like Camden,” says third-year Rutgers Law–Camden student Kaitlyn Compari about the school’s Voters’ Rights Project. The nationally recognized pro bono program has been connecting Camden voters with the polls for a decade.

Established in 2004 by the Association of Public Interest Law at Rutgers–Camden, what is now known as the Voters’ Rights Project has grown into an established partner in Camden’s efforts to ensure voter access and encourage even greater voter participation through its unique collaboration with the Camden County Board of Elections.

According to Robert Venuti, chair of the Camden County Board of Elections, this joint project has been of tremendous value to the region and could serve as a national model.

“It’s like having extra sets of eyes,” says Venuti. “We can’t be at every single polling place and have board workers there.”

The Board provides training for participating students and deputizes select law students to observe the polling places and log detailed observations of the voting process, record voter demographics, and make recommendations on how to improve future elections.

“Students also learn about election law on the ground. When there’s a recount, I get calls from lawyers with questions. These students will have some idea of what really goes on before they go into practice,” he adds.

In addition to working on Election Day, students also hold voter registration drives throughout the year.  Other academic offerings at the law school support this sustained student interest in voters’ rights.

“As a result of increasing collaboration with Newark, several Voters’ Rights Program participants and other Camden law students are participating by video in an election law course taught at Newark by Prof. Frank Askin,” says Jill Friedman, acting assistant dean for pro bono and public interest at the Rutgers Schools of Law in Camden and Newark. “The connection between the pro bono project and an important credit-bearing course in public lawyering is exciting.”

The voters’ rights program first began with a handful of passionate Rutgers–Camden law students, who like many across the country, were concerned about speculations of voter rights issues during the 2004 United States presidential election.  They launched their own local effort, mirroring the national Election Protection program.

“Our Voters Rights Project, organized by students committed to fostering civic engagement and the democratic process, now with the Camden County Board of Elections, has registered hundreds of new voters and carefully monitored Camden elections since its inception,” says Eve Biskind Klothen, former assistant dean for pro bono and public interest programs at Rutgers–Camden, who helped launch the project.

The project’s success was recognized in 2009 when it was selected as the recipient of the Equal Justice Works Exemplary Public Service Award for a Student Group, a highly competitive national honor.

While a student at Rutgers Law–Camden, Noah Marlier ‘10, who now practices municipal law at Rudolph Clarke, led the program.

“What thrust the Voters’ Rights Project forward was the Board of Elections allowing us to assist and educate voters from inside the polling sites. By dispatching dozens of volunteers to the polling sites across Camden, we were able to observe and analyze whether New Jersey election law was being followed. From this observation and analysis, we were able to create a comprehensive report on what the Board could do to enhance the rights of voters throughout Camden.”

Current students continue to feel inspired to play a pivotal part in the civic life of their host city. Jen Houghton, a third-year student, says Election Day in Camden is unforgettable.

“The most valuable moment I had working with the Voters’ Rights Project so far is seeing the enthusiasm that Camden City residents have on Election Day. Last year was an extremely contested election in Camden with the mayoral position on the ballot,” she adds.  “[Hearing] that the election would have been unimaginable without the assistance of the Voters’ Rights  Project was phenomenal for our program.”

Years since his involvement with the Rutgers Law–Camden project, Marlier still savors his Election Days volunteering for the project.

“We set up our ‘command center’ well before the sun came up, and we worked the polls for hours. It was exhausting and exhilarating, and I’ve never been so inspired by the efforts of a few trying to make a difference for many.”

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