A conversation with Larry Norden '87

Blog by Joseph Riddle '87, '88, '95, '97, current Vice-President of the Board

Larry Norden '87

Larry Norden '87

I attended camp with Larry Norden ('87), now the Deputy Director for Democracy Programs at the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute that seeks to improve the US’ systems of democracy and justice. We spoke on November 9th, just one day after the US election sent shockwaves through the world of nonprofits advocating for equality. Just as the mission of Rising Sun is critical in this political climate, so is the work of advocates like Larry. His message couldn’t be more timely.

Joseph Riddle '87: Hi Larry, it’s great to speak with you!

Larry Norden: Thanks, Joe, it’s great to talk to you, too. I apologize if I’m a bit bleary today. I did election protection work yesterday, taking calls from people having problems voting. I don’t remember ever having so many voters say they were afraid, and reporting visible signs of voter intimidation.

JR: Horrible! But I’m glad to know that people like you are on the case. Please tell the CRS community (and me) a bit about your professional background.

LN: When I graduated from Law School, I worked in litigation for a big firm for about 5 years. I didn’t find corporate law work fulfilling, and I found myself eventually gravitating to policy and social justice issues -- coming at it from the legal side, given my training.

For 11 years, I’ve worked with the Brennan Center. I’ve spent the last 6 running our money and politics team. We look at the role of money in the US political system, with a specific eye on campaign finance reform. My group also handles our voting rights work, which includes studying the impact of voting technology, and policies that impact the right to vote in the US. For our voting rights work, in addition to supervising, my role includes being a public advocate for fairness and reform. That means frequent trips to DC, where I’m lobbying on Capitol Hill, and occasionally it means getting quoted in the press.

At Brennan, our overarching value and goal is to increase participation in the political process. We see access to legal voting as a pillar of strengthening our democratic institutions. We write policy briefs, assist with language for crafting bills, study issues that impact voting behavior... And sometimes we bring lawsuits, to advocate for fairness.

JR: Tell me a bit more about that. I’ve seen stories in the news, about changes in voting laws that have made it more difficult for certain groups to vote. What happened to cause that, and what’s been the impact?

LN: The most recent triggering event is that in 2013, the Supreme Court struck down a key  provision of the Voting Rights Act: Specifically, it struck down the need -- that had existed since 1965 -- for certain southern states and some other jurisdictions to seek permission from the Department of Justice in order to alter voting rights laws. This was in response to existing laws in those states that were intended to exclude black citizens from the voting process.

As you can imagine, striking those provisions was a controversial move. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg likened it to walking through a rainstorm with an umbrella and then tossing it because you weren’t getting wet. In fact, a number of states including Texas and North Carolina almost immediately passed laws that make it more difficult to vote, particularly for young people and people of color.

The recent decline in black participation in voting in North Carolina may well be linked to these new laws. I would not say, based on what we know, that it changed the results of the presidential election in that state, but it certainly had an impact.

There seems to be a growing awareness in the lower courts about what’s happening. Texas’ recent law restricting voting was found illegal, as were some of the provisions of North Carolina’s law. Overall, I’m hopeful. I think we’re successfully making the case that these laws are being passed with discriminatory intent.

JR: Has your team at the Brennan Center been involved in any of these suits?

LN: We have been. We represented voters and voting rights groups in the Texas lawsuit. We also brought a suit in Florida that made quite a bit of press -- the one that forced Florida’s governor, Rick Scott, to keep early voting open after a hurricane swept through that state in the final days of its early voting period.

JR: What is your outlook on voting rights in the US, with the incoming Trump administration?

LN: Well, it’s probably not good news. If Trump fulfills his promise to appoint justices in the mold of the recently-deceased Antonin Scalia, it could mean that suits claiming voter discrimination will face skepticism from the outset.

That said, there is a question about whether center-conservative justices like Roberts, who voted to strike down the provisions of the Voting Rights Act, under the rationale that discrimination was no longer a problem, will be influenced by more recent rulings from the lower courts. In the Shelby case, Roberts said it’s unfair to accuse these states of this kind of discrimination without evidence. Will he be persuaded by evidence that he was wrong?

I also hope Congress and the states will work to modernize our voting system. Old machines need to be replaced.  We’re facing a crisis as computerized systems around the country reach the end of their projected lifespans.  And there is no good (non-partisan) reason not to make registration automatic so that everyone who is qualified is registered and can vote on Election Day if they want to do so.  Alaska, California, Connecticut, Oregon, Vermont and West Virginia have passed laws that should make registration automatic, and that should make voting much easier for everyone.

On campaign finance laws, during the Scalia era, the justices were very divided on the role of money in politics. In Citizens United, which permitted unlimited political spending from corporations, they made a lot of assumptions that turned out not to be true. For example, they assumed we would know the source of most campaign money, which would act as a check on corruption. That’s turned out not to be true. Hundreds of millions of dollars are unaccounted for in the recent election. The justices acted as if they were unleashing what they called “independent” spending, which somehow wouldn’t have a corrupting influence on office holders, interpreting donations as a form of speech. (Campaign spending as a form of speech goes back to Buckley, in the 70s. The justices said then: “As long as you’re making a contribution to a group and not a candidate, it can’t be corrupting.” Again, this has turned out not to be true.)

There are cases working their way through the courts now, of alleged corruption; donors giving money to SuperPACs at the direction of candidates, with the intent to buy influence. So again there’s a question: will Roberts and others be persuaded by the new evidence?

JR: As I said before -- it’s so heartening for me to know that people like you are in there, fighting the good fight. Before we go, can you tell me a bit about how Camp Rising Sun shaped your worldview?

LN: Camp was such a warm, welcoming place with a lot of smart people interested in discussing ideas. For me, it was a supportive space -- sometimes combative, but supportive underneath that. Interacting with people from all over the world while I was still a teenager absolutely impacted my outlook. In my 20s, working for a big law firm and feeling unfulfilled, it influenced my need to see more of the world. I moved first to Ireland and then South Africa.

I don’t know if Camp impacted my career directly, but I have a clear recollection of an Instruction Jyrki Kallio gave, talking about political science and democracy. Obviously, if I remember it that clearly, it must have had an impact on me!

In some ways, the work I’m engaged in now reminds me a bit of that spirit. The problems are real, but at least I’m with smart people, working on issues that matter, hopeful that we can continue to contribute in a small, positive way to things that matter.