Meeting the Moment, Student News

UCLA Law Magazine | Fall 2020

New Practicum Builds on Student Push for Voting Rights Amid COVID-19

Sonni Waknin ’20 (left) and Michael Cohen ’21 helped spearhead efforts for the UCLA Voting Rights Project.

​Shortly after COVID-19 struck last spring, two UCLA Law students contributed to a report that recommends methods of securing voting rights during the pandemic as the November 2020 election approached. And thanks to the interdisciplinary collaboration that made their rapid-response effort a reality, the law school’s experiential education program has since launched a practicum devoted to voting rights and policies. 

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, Sonni Waknin ’20 and Michael Cohen ’21 worked with project leaders Matt Barreto and Chad Dunn to co-author the report, “Protecting Democracy: Implementing Equal and Safe Access to the Ballot Box During a Global Pandemic,” in late March, and they circulated it to members of Congress 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.

“For both of us, this has been one of the best training experiences during our time in law school,” they reported from their homes in Northern California and Arizona. “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.”

Now through the Voting Rights Policy and Practice joint practicum, which is taught by Barreto and Dunn, UCLA Law students will work alongside social science and public policy students to examine issues including redistricting demographic research concerning political jurisdictions and investigation of social and political evidence relied upon by courts in voting rights cases.