Fighting for Democracy in Law School: Q & A with Beau Tremitiere

BEAU C. TREMITIERE is the Editor-in-Chief of the Northwestern University Law Review and previously served as an aide in the United States Senate for Joe Manchin. Beau is a Next Generation Leader with the American Constitution Society, and he serves as co-chair of Election RAVE, a non-partisan campaign to increase electoral participation and education. Last year, Election RAVE led a successful effort to cancel Northwestern and other law school classes on Election Day in order to encourage students and faculty to volunteer at the polls in partnership with Chicago Lawyers’ Committee and other poll watching organizations. This interview was conducted in March 2017.

How did you get started fighting for voter access?

After college, my wife and I started a micro finance nonprofit in Ghana supporting about 70 small family businesses. I’d always had a passion for service, and that venture was an exciting way to bring the passion to life. When we returned to the United States, I worked on Capitol Hill for several years, mostly as a tax, healthcare, and education policy aide to West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin.

Manchin was exceptionally responsive to the people of West Virginia—uniquely responsive in a place where it’s easy for some politicians with elections every six years to disconnect from their constituents. He remained committed to translating his people’s concerns into public policy, maybe sometimes to a fault. But what I saw in many other offices was the opposite—there was little ability for people to have their values represented through their representatives. Once I learned that many politicians were so consistently flouting the popular will, I felt it was of even greater importance that we ensure that on Election Day, people always have the opportunity to stand up for what they believe in and express that clearly and strongly. There are a lot of structural challenges that keep representatives from making change their people want and deserve, and strengthening voting rights is one way to get at these issues.

During my first year at law school at Northwestern, I realized I was spending all my time at an institution dedicated to rule of law and democracy, yet it was doing little in practice to bring those values to life. By having class on Election Day and not making registration easy for new residents, it was dissuading people from participating in elections. That conflict was so apparent, and it brought to light how little I’d been doing personally to be an advocate and to support voting rights. It spurred my desire to get involved and to live out my values.

Why the focus on law schools and law students in particular?

When you become a lawyer, even if you go into transactional practice or do something removed from public service, you are part of a system that is at, its core, committed to the rule of law and the fundamental American values of participation and self-determination. I’m afraid that some lawyers forget that. Law schools have us captured for three years as we transition from ordinary people to officers of the court. Not only can they instill values around service and participation, but I think they have a duty to do so. I’m very proud of Northwestern Law for the degree to which they’ve made service a priority and a core value of the school. But there’s always more that can be done. To the degree that students end up on a career path far away from that sort of service, law school can be a paradigm-shifting opportunity. Many of my classmates had never volunteered in an election prior to this November, but after one day at the polls meeting the people affected by access or registration issues and helping them exercise their rights . . . it’s like a drug. Now they’re hooked.

How did you collaborate to make change happen at Northwestern?

I sat down with progressive and conservative campus organization leaders, namely the Federalist and American Constitution Societies. There was enthusiastic buy-in immediately for Election RAVE, and that small group of student leaders organized a petition drive on campus. We ended up with approximately a third of the school signed on to support this program. Then we sat down with our dean, Dan Rodriguez, and presented him with this idea. We were nervous going in but he was instantly supportive, and committed essentially on the spot. The school was with us every step of the way from then on out.

I think it’s important that we think of these issues as every-single-day problems that require every-single-day solutions. In Illinois, elections happen at least once a year, but voting rights and civic engagement are 24/7/365 projects. We tried to bring that concept to life by having programming at the law school all throughout the fall. We brought in amazing speakers such as Voting Rights and Civic Empowerment Director Ami Gandhi to talk about voting rights issues from different perspectives. We had registration drives on campus for Illinois students and absentee ballot drives for out-of-state students, and this constant bombardment around the upcoming election helped students, faculty, and staff make informed decisions and participate as both voters and volunteers.

In the end, approximately 40 Northwestern Law students and faculty served as Election Protection poll watchers or hotline volunteers, including the Dean himself. Well over 100 students and faculty volunteered on Election Day. And there was real interest in volunteerism from students and faculty at Penn, Harvard, Pitt, and Berkeley, among other schools around the country. 

I cannot overstate how important our relationship with Chicago Lawyers’ Committee and Voting Rights Director Ami Gandhi has been. We would have done good work on our own, but it was this partnership more than any other than made it exceptional. I was a pain in the butt, and your patience dealing with me and some of my peers was far beyond what we deserved. This is a remarkable group of people and I felt really fortunate to get to work with you. We partnered with several other organizations, such high school volunteer groups, other poll watching and canvassing groups, and disability access groups—but there’s a reason that I chose to spend my Election Day as an Election Protection volunteer.

What was your experience like during the November 2016 election?

I spent Election Day volunteering with Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Election Protection. I was down in Chicago driving around five or six precincts on the south side. It was an incredible day, and we had pretty smooth sailing compared to what I’d seen in previous elections. There was high enthusiasm and good energy; I felt privileged to be there. I remember one voter in particular, a young woman with two kids in tow, one wrapped around her ankle and the other on her shoulders. She told us she was homeless. She was holding onto one kid with one arm and verification for residency from her shelter in the other. She came in and admitted she’d never voted before, she was only 19 or 20 years old, and you could just see the excitement emanating from her by just being in the room and knowing she would be able to cast her first ballot. The judges helped her get registered and cast her ballot. She was so grateful and I could see her tearing up as she filled out her ballot. After she cast her vote, I went and spoke to her. She was clasping her “I Voted” bracelet and I offered to help her put it on, but she wanted to wait and take a picture with her phone. But she hadn’t been able to charge her phone in a week. So she neatly folded it up and put it in her pocket, and I remember seeing the smile on her face as she walked out the door. That alone was worth it. I had my own bracelet on for nearly seven weeks after that.

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve found in advocating for Election Day reform?

At Northwestern Law, I was never satisfied with the number of volunteers we had. My goal was 100 percent. But we had well over one hundred more people volunteering than would’ve had we not started this program. The biggest challenge was getting busy law students involved—convincing folks with a lot on their schedule that this was an important use of time. While I still regret not having closer to full volunteer participation, I’ve been trying to focus on the people who did volunteer. With other schools in Illinois and elsewhere, we did whatever we could to help create an environment where a significant percentage of student and faculty could give back on Election Day. Few deans matched Dean Rodriguez’s enthusiasm and commitment, so we had to adjust and be flexible: ask individual professors to cancel class, excuse absences, provide students with easy access to sign-up resources, etc. That said, my delay in starting the program was a big issue – if we had started earlier we would have had a better shot at getting other schools and more students involved. Northwestern cancelled classes with just a few months’ notice. Few other schools were willing to do that. Certain schools just didn’t see this as an urgent problem, in many cases, these campuses were in places without sister chapters of the national Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights. In those places, you don’t have advocates identifying and bringing attention to the severity and consequences of disenfranchisement and voter suppression, so you have to explain why this is an experience that would benefit their students and their communities.

We ended up contacting and speaking with probably 80 schools around the country. A few dozen engaged intensely and had student leaders doing great work. We focused on states where we anticipated problems – Virginia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania – where we anticipated the highest need for non-partisan student support. There was less enthusiastic support in some of those places than I had hoped. Convincing people that encouraging students to vote and volunteer is as apolitical as anything is a challenge, especially in places where people feel like they need to walk on eggshells.

You have to make volunteerism accessible, encouraged, and highly valued, and I think the best way to do that is to eliminate all possible obstacles, aggressively support students who want to volunteer, and help make it easy for them to do so. You can encourage or require faculty to record lectures, implore them not to have tests or things they can’t miss on that day. Our law schools need to demonstrate that these are important values.

Looking at the national political landscape today, what’s your biggest fear regarding voting rights?

Easy: that whether people should have a chance to participate in our democracy is not just a question, but a political one. It’s naïve to pretend that it hasn’t been a question before. Much of Jim Crow was built that question, by ensuring voters of color were kept from exercising their voting rights. But I remain optimistic that we can get to a point where we fight political wars on other grounds.

What’s the next target on Election RAVE’s agenda?

I will be stepping away for two years, as I will be clerking for Judge John Kronstadt of the US District Court for the Central District of California and for Judge M. Margaret McKeown of the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. That said, this movement always has been and will continue to be much, much bigger than me and my contributions.

One goal is ensuring that Northwestern Law continues and expands its commitment for future elections. We want to pay close attention to midterms and primaries as well – we can’t be okay with institutions and people engaging only every four years during high-profile presidential elections. Nationally, the goal is continuing to support other passionate students, faculty, and administrators who want to help their schools embrace these values and create opportunities for giving back on Election Day. I’m not entirely sure what that’s going to look like, but it’s really important to me.

It’s clear there is so much potential in this population of lawyers and soon-to-be lawyers. The fit is so perfectly aligned, and the need is enormous. It just takes a bit of elbow grease to bring it all together.