Lessons From the Women Leading Today’s Fight for Voting Rights

A collage of five women advocates and activists who are leading the fight for voting rights. On the top left is a black and white image of NAACP Legal Defense Fund Senior Counsel Leah Aden on a light purple background. To the right of Aden is a black and white image of Elias Law Group Partner Abbha Khanna on a light pink background. Below Aden and Khanna is a light red dividing line. Below the red line are three more black and white images of women advocates. Pictured from left to right is: Rise CEO Mary-Pat Hector on a teal background, Black Voters Matter co-founder LaTosha Brown and Elias Law Group Partner Aria Branch.

Last October, Leah Aden made history when she stood at the U.S. Supreme Court lectern to argue against South Carolina’s racially discriminatory congressional map. Aden, a tenacious voting rights and redistricting litigator at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, joined a small but redoubtable handful of Black women attorneys who have advocated before the nation’s high court over the last few decades. 

Just one year earlier, Abha Khanna, a partner at Elias Law Group, made her debut at the Court as she incisively presented oral argument in Allen v. Milligan — a Voting Rights Act case that culminated in a resounding victory for Black Alabamians who will have an opportunity this November to elect their preferred candidate in an additional congressional district. Khanna, a seasoned redistricting lawyer and the daughter of Indian immigrants, was one of only two women advocates representing private clients during the Court’s October 2022 session. 

Despite the conspicuous dearth of women — particularly women of color — who have argued  before the Supreme Court, numerous women have helmed the historical and contemporary fight for voting rights and contributed to the creation of a more inclusive, multiracial American democracy. In 2024 — both on the ground and in the courts — many women are building on the legacies of historical icons such as Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Mary Church Terell and Fannie Lou Hamer who pioneered the original movement for women’s suffrage and equal access to the ballot box.

Earlier this month, Aden returned from a weekend sojourn to Selma, Alabama to commemorate the 59th anniversary of the infamous Bloody Sunday attack on peaceful voting rights marchers. In an interview with me, she reflected on the significance of that trip, which took place at the conclusion of Black History Month and the start of Women’s History month: “Selma — where people risked their lives, their jobs and more — is emblematic of generations of women who were the first… to put themselves on the line, not just for themselves, but for other people whom they couldn’t even fathom would come after them.”

This Women’s History Month, Democracy Docket is not only remembering those women “who were the first,” but also celebrating and highlighting the contributions of the women who have “come after.” I spoke to just a few of the many women attorneys and activists who are at the vanguard of today’s fight for voting rights and heard about their work, what motivates them and why they remain committed to protecting our democracy. Here is what I learned from the women who are presently making history.

When it comes to pro-democracy work, don’t underestimate the “power and impact of courage.”

On her way home from elementary school in rural Alabama, then-second grader LaTosha Brown — clad in a dress and her favorite white patent leather shoes — intervened to stop a group of bullies who were picking on a “scrawny little boy.” Brown, an award-winning civil rights activist and the co-founder of Black Voters Matter, recalled that story in an interview with Democracy Docket, explaining how in that moment, she realized the profound impact of courage in “preventing abuses of power and creating a new vision for America.” 

As a self-described “daughter of the Deep South” born in Selma, Alabama, Brown has channeled that nascent courage into a decades-long career as an activist, organizer and visionary focused on civil rights and social justice issues. The work of her organization, Black Voters Matter (BVM), centers on increasing voting power in marginalized communities through voter registration, engagement and a variety of other initiatives. 

From contributing to record voter turnout among Georgians in the 2021 Senate runoff to fighting in court for fair congressional districts in Florida, Brown and her organization are at the forefront of combating voter suppression and cultivating Black political power. 

Although “this work can be really painful and hard,” Brown said, it is all “centered around reminding people of their humanity, and that the power of humanity is greater than the politics that we may be facing.” 

Brown told me that in all of her work — whether on voting rights or Black women and girls’ empowerment in the South — “joy is what guides the journey.” Outside of her leadership roles, Brown taps into her joy as an avid jazz singer and songwriter, participating in activities through which she can generate “as much joy for herself and others as possible.” 

“As Black women leaders, we’re going to embrace the joy because that’s what’s going to help us be able to actually stand in this fight and to be able to make change. And sometimes, it’s not just about what we’re against. It’s the vision of what we are for.”

The route isn’t always direct, but along the way, you “call the shots” and “make your career work for you.”

Many years prior to arguing before the Supreme Court, Abha Khanna was teaching high school English with the plan of eventually earning a doctorate in English literature and pursuing a career in academia. 

But as she led a classroom and refined her craft as a writer, Khanna discovered that what she enjoyed most about teaching high school English was “not the English literature part, but actually the teaching part and the impact part.” Khanna recounted in an interview with Democracy Docket how through her teaching experience, she ultimately decided to reevaluate her trajectory and pivot towards law school. From there, she would ultimately be able to parlay her writing and analytical skills into a voting rights-oriented legal career through which she could “really effect positive change and bring other people along.”

Along her journey to eventually becoming an expert redistricting and voting rights attorney, Khanna clerked for Judge Judith Rogers, the first Black woman to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Rogers assured Khanna that regardless of where she might end up, decisions such as moving to Seattle or starting a family need not be considered “detours” — rather, they should be viewed as empowering opportunities to “call the shots” and make Khanna’s career work for her.

Rogers’ advice proved quite prescient. It was in Seattle where Khanna commenced her career as a voting rights and redistricting litigator, developing her expertise at the time of the post-2010 census redistricting cycle. Khanna would go on to become a preeminent attorney in the field, spearheading numerous lawsuits across the country to challenge racially discriminatory and gerrymandered redistricting plans as well as voter suppression laws. 

Although her October 2022 argument in Allen undoubtedly marked a “highlight” of her legal career, Khanna explained that arguing before the Supreme Court — as at the trial or appellate court level where she has argued many times before — “is fundamentally about how you argue your case as a lawyer.” Khanna’s diligent prep work, combined with what she described as the “sheer level of support” she received from her clients, colleagues, family and members of the legal community, made her feel “as if she were 10-feet tall by the time she walked into that courtroom.”  

Khanna quipped that on the day of oral argument, “the hardest and toughest advocacy was with the marshal’s office trying to squeeze in a couple more tickets for family members.” Fortunately, her adroit advocacy paid off, and she was able to secure tickets for her parents, husband and two children that day. “I love that when my kids think about what their mom does for a career…she argues in front of the Supreme Court, like that’s just an everyday activity.”

You are never too young to start contributing to the fight.

At the age of 12, Mary-Pat Hector began organizing around issues of gun violence prevention in Stone Mountain, Georgia. And at 19 years old, she became the youngest woman and person of color to run for public office in Georgia, losing her election for a city council seat by only 22 votes. 

When asked how she became civically engaged at such a young age, Hector told me that as a “woman of color in this country, you don’t really have the luxury of not being politically engaged early on because consistently, issues that directly impact your life are on the ballot.” 

Hector, now 26, serves as the CEO of Rise, a national youth-led organization that runs student voter mobilization and advocacy programs focused on securing free public higher education and ending food and housing insecurity among college students. 

Despite being one of the youngest individuals in the democracy space, Hector has no shortage of organizing and leadership experience. Prior to becoming the CEO of Rise’s national program, Hector utilized her precocious organizing skills at the state-level in Georgia where she had a hand in mobilizing upwards of 100,000 college students and youth to get out the vote. Even earlier on in her organizing career, as an undergraduate student at Spelman College, Hector led impactful hunger strikes, which ultimately resulted in over 75,000 meals for students at  Spelman and other historically black colleges and universities.

Hector told me in a recent interview that with the 2024 election on the horizon, “the numbers are in young people’s favor: Nearly half the electorate is under the age of 45.” Invoking a quote from the late Coretta Scott King, who said that “freedom is never really won — you earn it and win it in every generation,” Hector added that she believes “Gen Z can use its power collectively to truly make a difference in 2024 and beyond — from climate issues to reproductive justice. ”

A strong sense of family history, community and identity imbue this work. 

From an early age, Leah Aden had a keen awareness of her family history. She grew up in Washington D.C., where her family had moved during the Great Migration in order to escape violence in the American South and seek better economic and educational opportunities. In the nation’s capital, Aden’s grandfather began a family-owned business to fight housing discrimination against Black and Latino families in the area. 

Aden explained to me how her upbringing and family legacy “compelled [her] to want to be an advocate for the underserved and under-resourced.” But her sights weren’t initially set on voting rights work.

While pursuing a J.D. at Howard Law School, Aden initially “thought [she] was going to do public education work and keep the legacy of Brown v. Board of Education alive.” She purposefully decided to pursue her law degree at Howard, knowing that it was the alma mater of the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall — the founder of Legal Defense Fund (LDF) who argued Brown in 1952. 

Following law school, Aden began working at LDF, where “by pure happenstance, [she] became a voting rights litigator.” When Aden joined the team in 2012, LDF’s voting section needed an attorney to support its efforts litigating Shelby County v. Holder — a highly consequential case in which the Supreme Court effectively invalidated a Voting Rights Act provision that required jurisdictions with histories of racial discrimination to seek federal approval before implementing new voting laws and electoral districts. 

Since the Court’s devastating 2013 Shelby County decision, Aden has remained an indefatigable advocate for voting rights and fair districts at LDF, litigating several court cases throughout the country. Now serving as senior counsel at LDF, Aden explained how her work in voting rights is inextricably connected to other civil rights issues she remains passionate about: “When you break open the doors of democracy so that everyone has a seat at the table, you can then elect representatives who will — among other policies — push for things like high quality schools for everyone.”

Aden’s recent October 2023 Supreme Court oral argument in Alexander v. South Carolina State Conference of the NAACP typifies the idea that fighting for fair maps boils down to ensuring that communities are adequately represented by elected officials who are responsive to their specific needs. 

Aden relayed to me how she felt when stepping up to argue on behalf of Black South Carolinians in front of the nation’s highest court: “I was acutely aware of the uniqueness of standing up there as a Black woman…and I felt the wings of my ancestors at my back, knowing that this thing is bigger than me.” 

She added that all of the “stress and painstaking preparation” leading up to that day was “worth it, because no matter the outcome of the case, our clients’ rights matter.” In the South Carolina case and beyond, “these fights are worth it, because what is at stake — dignity, opportunity, joy, rights — is just so basic to who we are as human beings.”

The preservation of voting rights is fundamental to securing a just and fair society.

As a young Black woman, Aria Branch always knew she wanted to “do some sort of justice in the world,” although she wasn’t sure “what form that might take.” Branch, who is now a partner and litigator at Elias Law Group, shared with Democracy Docket that she was reared in a family whose dinner table conversations centered on politics, news and the ability to distinguish “right from wrong.” 

Following her graduation from Harvard Law School — an accomplishment that Branch said her grandmother likely could not have dreamed for her granddaughter — she ultimately landed on a legal career in the voting rights and elections space. Since then, Branch has led a plethora of voting rights and redistricting cases and has represented progressive candidates, nonprofits and political organizations. 

Branch shared with me that while she is heartened by the legal field’s progress with respect to gender and diversity, “there is still a long way to go — especially as we are seeing a push on the right to really disassemble diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs, many of which have led to where I am today.” 

In light of these right-wing efforts to roll back affirmative action and DEI programs, Branch has translated the versatile skill set she utilizes in her vast portfolio of voting-related cases to challenge what she views as a “major threat” to diversity in educational and professional spaces. Branch said that she has the honor of representing organizations led by Black women, such as the Black Economic Alliance, that are serving as bulwarks against these attacks. 

Branch stressed that what helps her remain optimistic is the fact that courts — even the most conservative among them — “still remain a really important piece of protecting democracy.” She pointed to the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 2023 decision in Allen — the case in which Khanna, one of her partners and role models, prevailed in securing a victory for Alabama voters and protecting Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. 

Branch added that she is “hopeful that people are waking up to the fact that voting rights are important because they undergird all these other rights…from reproductive rights to DEI and every issue in between.”