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The debate ‘complicated’ our work with getting people to vote: Lawyers’ Committee President

Black Voices for Black Justice, a new fund trying to make changes to the criminal justice system, education, and voting rights, just launched. Kristen Clarke, Lawyers’ Committee President, joins Yahoo Finance’s Jennifer Rogers, Kristin Myers, and Sibile Marcellus to discuss the fund and the important work its doing as the November election is only weeks away.

Video Transcript

KRISTIN MYERS: Sorry about that, guys. I was muted. Welcome to Yahoo Finance. I'm Kristin Myers. And this is "2020-- A Time for Change." The racial tensions and the protests over the last several months have underscored the need for justice for the Black community. Earlier this week, a new fund called Black Voices for Black Justice was launched by dozens of Black leaders in the hopes of making change to the criminal justice system, education, voting rights, and more.

We're joined now by one of the fund's leaders, Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights under Law. In her role and throughout her career, Kristen has worked on issues like voting rights and election law, fair housing, and more. As always, Sibile Marcellus and Jen Rogers are here for today's conversation.

So Kristen, thank you so much for joining us today. I want to start with that news of the fund, which launched just a couple of days ago. We've seen over the last several months companies like Netflix, Facebook, and others donate millions of dollars to organizations and causes to increase racial equity. I'm wondering if you can explain why it's so important to have a fund like this by Black people for Black people and what it can do that those donations from those companies can't.

KRISTEN CLARKE: Well, first, thank you so much for having me. And I, you know, I think there's something special about this moment that we're in in 2020. And in many respects, we're a nation at a crossroads contending with racial justice and police violence and the rise in white supremacy. And for me as a civil rights lawyer, I know that the power of grassroots activity and the power of protest are really critical to driving movements.

And if we look around us, no doubt there is the largest, I think our nation's largest, racial justice movement underway right now, the largest movement of its kind that we've ever had in our nation's history.

And to me, for this movement to really sustain itself and to grow, we need to support the folks on the ground right now that are doing the work, the ones that are rolling up their sleeves, the ones that are organizing their communities and leading marches and holding peaceful protest. So that's what this fund is about, really giving some of those new leaders and emerging voices the support that they need to take their leadership to that next level.

KRISTIN MYERS: I want to dive into one of the issues that the fund is actually going to be working on, which is voting rights. And I know that you work on voting rights in your current role. And it's something that you've actually tackled throughout your entire career. I want to read this tweet to you from the president. This is from back in July.

He said, quote, "With universal mail-in voting, not absentee voting, which is good, 2020 will be the most inaccurate and fraudulent election in history. It will be a great embarrassment to the USA. Delay the election until people can properly, securely, and safely vote." I'm wondering if you think that the president's attempt to cast doubt on this election is working. And how are those attacks on the integrity of this election going to impact the Black community, which has historically been disenfranchised?

KRISTEN CLARKE: You know, the president has a mega bullhorn. And sadly, we've seen him-- we've seen him use that bullhorn to spread misinformation at every doubt, to promote chaos, to undermine confidence in absentee voting. And you know, it's so troubling because the nation is undergoing an ongoing pandemic. And for many people across our country, the only way for them to have voice is to vote by mail. And I think this is a real concern.

Some of the folks that we have supported through this fund are on the front lines doing work to activate people in their communities to get registered to vote, to get out and vote. One of our award recipients is Ryan Haygood of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. And he has done some remarkable work to re-enfranchise returning citizens in the state of New Jersey.

But you know, I think there is a powerful connection between the right to protest and the right to vote. And a lot of these activists that we have supported through this fund are doing that work, doing work that really speaks to rights and principles and values that lie at the heart of our democracy and lie at the heart of who we are as a nation.

KRISTIN MYERS: And I want to touch on the debate that happened this week. Did you find that it energized and helped your work in trying to get as many people as possible to vote either by mail or at the polls? Or do you think it might have discouraged some voters?

KRISTEN CLARKE: It certainly complicated our work a little bit because there are a lot of people who continue to call my organization, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights under Law. We lead a program called Election Protection, which is the nation's largest and longest-running nonpartisan voter protection program anchored by a hotline, 866-OUR-VOTE.

And we're getting flooded with calls from people across the country who are saying is vote by mail a true and trusted way for us to participate in 2020? And so we're doing a lot of work to overcome the myths and the misinformation and really, you know, giving the public the confidence that they need to know that this is, this is indeed one way that you can have your voice heard in 2020.

We know for a lot of people, you know, they have been impacted by the pandemic. So many of us have been impacted by the pandemic. And no one should have to choose between protecting their health and exercising the right to vote this season.

- No one should have to make that choice. But of course, this is just an unprecedented time. And given what the president said at the debate, you know, encouraging supporters to be looking out at the polls, I mean, people are-- people are concerned about going not just for their health, but for what's going to be in front of them there.

However, even though we've never seen any issues with mail-in voting, now people are trying to say go and vote in person. These calls that you're fielding, are you starting to change what you're saying to people? Do you think it's important to go and vote in person this year?

KRISTEN CLARKE: We believe it's a deeply personal choice at the end of the day. But what we do is we work to empower people so that they know all of the available options that they have in their state. We want to make sure that people know about how to vote by mail and what are the timelines, the restrictions that apply. We want to let people know there are early voting opportunities. And there's so many people who across the country have already gone out and voted in person during early voting.

And then we're letting people know that if you wait till Election Day that it's important to check your polling site because so many sites have changed and moved because of the pandemic. There are many, you know, retirement homes, for example, that are no longer being used because of the pandemic. So it's all about empowering people so they have as much information available to them to make the best choice possible for them.

And I'll say this, that, you know, we know that for some communities, that experience of going out and voting in person is really important to them. Our hope is that people will take full advantage of all of the available options so that we can ease the burdens that officials otherwise will face on Election Day itself.

KRISTIN MYERS: All right. Well, we will have to leave that conversation there. Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights under Law. Thanks so much for joining us today.

KRISTEN CLARKE: Thank you so much for having me.