Protecting the right to vote
Jaclyn Maffetore, an Elon Law student committed to advancing civil liberties, found herself featured by The Nation this spring after assisting an elderly woman who wanted to cast a ballot in North Carolina’s presidential primaries.
As a child, when Jaclyn Maffetore imagined “the law,” she pictured Thurgood Marshall. It was in sixth grade that Maffetore watched a movie on the American jurisprudence legend and his role in the 1954 landmark Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation case.
And when her mother started insisting that Maffetore would one day be a lawyer, due in no small part to her argumentative nature, that suited the North Carolina native just fine. “To me,” she said, “being a lawyer was doing social justice work.”
Maffetore, today a third-year Elon Law student, is now advocating for a new generation of disenfranchised people, most recently helping an elderly woman with no birth certificate and no photo identification cast a ballot in North Carolina’s presidential primaries on March 15, 2016. Her efforts caught the attention of The Nation, one of the oldest continuously published American magazines focused on political and cultural news, opinion and analyses.
“Voting is not a privilege,” Maffetore said of the recent experience. “Voting is a fundamental right. … If I was attending almost any other law school in the country, I would not have had this opportunity as a student.”
New voting regulations took effect this spring in North Carolina. Now, when someone heads to the polls, he or she must present a government-issued photo identification before casting a ballot.
Not everyone owns an acceptable form of identification or can even gain access to one. Some voters never sought a driver’s license or passport. Others lack easy access to the Department of Motor Vehicles, which can issue identification cards. But even then it assumes voters can show proof of identity, Maffetore said, which isn’t always possible without spending lots of money on government documents.
By the state’s own estimation, nearly 220,000 registered voters - 5 percent of all voters in North Carolina - are without a DMV-issued identification
One of those voters was Alberta Currie. Born at home in Virginia to a midwife, the 82-year-old doesn’t have a birth certificate. Her Virginia driver’s license expired years ago after she relocated to Cumberland County in North Carolina. And though she’s voted there since 2004, poll workers first said Currie must cast a provisional ballot, which may not end up counting.
Currie was born during the Jim Crow era. Voting has always been important to her and she remembers when she first started voting having to wait all day allowing white people to cut in front of her in line before she could cast her ballot.
The Southern Coalition for Social Justice was already representing Currie in an ongoing lawsuit against the state. Leaders immediately asked Maffetore - who was working with the coalition through Elon Law’s innovative semester-in-practice program – to help.
The SCSJ is a nonprofit organization founded in August 2007 in North Carolina by a multidisciplinary group who, according to its website, “believe that families and communities engaged in social justice struggles need a team of lawyers, social scientists, community organizers and media specialists to support them in their efforts to dismantle structural racism and oppression.” It focuses its current efforts on protecting minority voting rights, advancing environmental justice, challenging racial discrimination in the criminal justice system, and ending mistreatment of undocumented people.
Maffetore drove 90 miles from Durham to Fayetteville to help Currie prove her identity, obtain a “reasonable impediment” form and, ultimately, to cast a vote that carried weight. “Voter ID laws sting extra hard for people who have already lived through government-imposed impediments to vote,” Maffetore said, “even if the discrimination here isn't so overt.”
The Southern Coalition for Social Justice soon shared Maffetore’s story with a reporter from The Nation who was covering the effects of the new voter identification law. The story was published online 10 days after the election.
“It’s no surprise to me that Jaci’s important work is winning attention,” said Elon Law Associate Professor Enrique Armijo, who has known Maffetore since her first year of law school, having taught her in Torts, Constitutional Law, Administrative Law, and serving as her Moot Court coach on the First Amendment team. “She has worked for underrepresented communities since before law school, she brought a sensitivity to and advocacy for those issues during her in-class time here, and she’s known from her first day here that she was going to dedicate her skills and talents to those same issues upon her graduation.
“But Jaci’s best attribute might be her belief, of which I’m sure, that any of that earned attention should go not to her, but to the causes she believes in and fights for every day.”
Social justice has always been a passion for Maffetore. She joined Elon Law after graduating from Wake Forest University, where she had advocated for the rights of marginalized populations, including an LGBTQ community impacted by North Carolina’s 2012 ban on same-sex marriage.
Despite what she describes as setbacks in the expansion of civil liberties in parts of the country, Maffetore said that advocates like herself should use their hope in positive change as a driving force against everything trying to push down their causes.
She also tells everyone she meets of the effect of voting on Election Day and in local elections – town councils and school boards, for instance - held throughout the year.
“Turn out and vote. That’s really important,” she said. “Make your voice heard, and not just for the presidential race. It’s just as important to choose your local leaders.”