After the immortal earworm “Groove Is in the Heart,” perhaps the most enduring song by the psychedelic party band Deee-Lite, is a 30-second PSA released in 1992 titled “Vote, Baby, Vote.”

The political and popular cultural landscapes have shifted considerably since the 1990s. Back then, the idea of enthusiastically participating in the electoral process and accepting the results, win or lose — “Are you registered, baby?” Deee-Lite’s Lady Miss Kier sang between go-go kicks — was wholeheartedly encouraged across party lines, even by those not watching MTV.

Jingles aside, voting in the U.S. has always been a serious business. It’s sobering to remember that countless people have devoted their lives, and sometimes literally given them, simply to earn the right to vote in the United States. And yet, according to Pew Research Center, only about 66% of the voting-eligible population cast their votes in the 2020 presidential election, one of the most consequential in the nation’s history. It’s hardly a surprise that public trust in the federal government hit near-record lows in 2023.

Today, as Americans find themselves, thanks to technology, more interconnected than ever, a glimpse into the funhouse mirror of social media reveals a country increasingly politically polarized, fragmented and heated, with no cooling in sight. The contrast is especially harsh as the 2024 presidential election ramps up, with so much at stake — locally, nationally and globally.

“What happens in the next two, three, four years is going to determine what the next four or five decades are going to look like,” President Joe Biden remarked at a campaign stop in November. “More change is going to occur in the next 10 years than occurred in the last 50 years.”

There’s a reason that lands so ominously. Voting rights are under unprecedented attack across the country, as politics gets nastier and no tactic to gain advantage seems to be off limits. Luckily, though, there is an armada of people fighting to retain and protect voting rights in this country, among them a team from UCLA on the front lines of this highly charged, ever-changing battle. They’re all seeking to preserve the idea of what was once a given: that our elections should be free and fair. 

The forthcoming presidential election is likely to be among the most heated — and potentially unnerving — of our collective lives. Here’s what some of UCLA’s suffrage experts are doing to protect the integrity of voting rights for this election — and every other.

“Don’t take American democracy for granted”

Richard Hasen M.A. ’88, J.D. ’91, Ph.D. ’92 calls it, perhaps understatedly, “a precarious situation.” The UCLA professor of law and political science and director of UCLA Law’s Safeguarding Democracy Project says that “we seriously risked a subverted election in 2020, and the candidate who did that is still leading in the polls. Which says something about the state of American democracy right now.”

We seriously risked a subverted election in 2020, says Richard Hasen, and the candidate who did that is still leading in the polls.

Alarmed and seeking to counteract what he saw as severe threats to the country’s political infrastructure, in March 2022 Hasen convened a national, nonpartisan panel of 24 experts in law, media, politics and technology to lay out actionable recommendations for ways to protect election integrity. The group included “liberals and conservatives and everyone,” he says. “We may disagree about lots of things. We all agree that we need free and fair elections.”

The group’s subsequent report, “24 for ’24,” released in September 2023, paints an alarming portrait of the fragility of our current voting system, which is under attack by a legion of bad actors willing to engage in active disenfranchisement and even violence — all in the service of “protecting” a certain idea of America while aggressively undermining confidence in public institutions, including how votes are counted.

Especially concerning, Hasen finds, is that one of the most contested issues up for public debate is something that ideally shouldn’t be one in the first place: the very process of how U.S. elections are held. Until recently, many around the world looked to the U.S. election process as a model, steeped in a precedent for order.

“On the one hand, [Donald] Trump is essentially running on a claim that the last election was stolen, which it wasn’t. On the other hand, Democrats claim a lot of voter suppression, which there isn’t,” Hasen says. “We end up having this system where people lose confidence in the election process and tend to believe the lies spread on social media and elsewhere.”

Unfortunately, as he points out, public trust does not have an on/off switch. And for many, the argument ultimately becomes less about proving actual fraud and more about feeling a certain way. 

The key to getting most people to accept election results? Hold fair elections. But what does that look like — and who decides what’s “fair”? The “24 for ’24” report lays out some sensible steps for rebuilding public trust in the process — for example, making sure that election officials who provide information about polling places and activity have verified social media accounts, and ensuring that media portrays vote counts and messaging impartially. In addition, Hasen and his colleagues run public seminars, continually meeting with the different groups most responsible for fair elections — everyone from election administrators to journalists to civil and voting rights groups and business and civic group leaders.

Still, Hasen acknowledges just how challenging it is to put the genie back in the bottle and to convince outlets, officials and everyone else to adhere to truly impartial standards in light of the increasingly cutthroat, anything-for-ratings discourse none of us can seem to escape.

“When I grew up, we were a much less polarized country. We had a lot of civics education, but the idealistic version — ‘Schoolhouse Rock!’, if you remember,” he says. “Today, if you ask people how they would feel if their child married someone of a different race or religion, they are more tolerant than they were, which is progress. But if you ask them how they would feel if their child married someone of a different political party, they’re much more upset about that.

“We’re living in an era of both polarization and profound technological change. And those two things have come together to create this precarious moment where it’s easy to input opinions about elections being ‘stolen,’” he says. “Don’t take American democracy for granted. It’s like a marriage; you can’t just assume that it goes on autopilot. You’ve got to work at it and nurture it so that it doesn’t atrophy.”

“Fighting discrimination that, ideally, we shouldn’t have to be fighting yet again”

“When I was a college student, I was really interested in thinking about my community as an Asian American and why we aren’t represented in a lot of conversations about politics,” says Natalie Masuoka, a UCLA associate professor of political science and Asian American studies. “I saw a missing story. It inspired me to conduct research that centers on race in politics.”

Natalie Masuoka says we need to look to the past for inspiration, to the history of civil rights as an example. The advances weve seen have been the product of a lot of hard work.

As the former chair of UCLA’s Asian American Studies Department, Masuoka seeks to understand the political activism, behaviors and preferences of communities of color. Her academic and educational work took on a heightened focus, however, after the controversial 2013 Shelby County v. Holder case. That case saw the U.S. Supreme Court gut the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the landmark legislation that has increased representation and voting equality for communities of color for nearly 60 years. 

“We’re going through a challenging time, essentially fighting discrimination that, ideally, we shouldn’t have to be fighting yet again,” Masuoka says. “It would be great to be able to aim our efforts at other productive endeavors, like incorporating new voters into the system. Because of these various voting-rights rollbacks, communities and candidates of color are seeing their power diluted as they deal with intimidation and discrimination.”

Seeing the way the role of race in American politics has changed has long interested Masuoka, and with inevitable major demographic shifts across the country, these changes will only continue. For example, in its 2023 National Population Projections release, the U.S. Census Bureau projected that:

  • By 2100, the largest contributor to population growth in the U.S. will be immigration.
  • By 2030, more of the U.S. population will be 65 or older than will be under 18.
  • By 2060, non-Hispanic whites will dip below their current (2022) demographic dominance (58.9%) to a figure as low as 42.7%, while the Hispanic population will rise from 19.1% in 2022 to as high as 27.8%.
At Monterey Park’s Lunar New Year festival, Masuoka hosted a booth with community partner CAUSE to collect survey data regarding voting experiences in L.A. County. Their findings? Asian language ballot translation is poor, and many Asian immigrants find translated materials difficult to use.

In light of all of this, Masuoka closely monitors turnout for voters of color and produces both community-facing and policy-oriented reports to focus on concerns, including a recent report she published on the role of race/ethnicity in citywide and city council district elections in Los Angeles. This quarter, she also partnered with the nonprofit Center for Asian Americans United for Self Empowerment to launch a project with 12 UCLA undergraduate students to study the causes of low voter turnout among Asian Americans in the San Gabriel Valley. Her hope is that the findings will foster the training of students to become policy advocates for Asian American voters.

The work never ends, and so its especially crucial, she says, for everyone to see the historical, big-picture context for the current and future political reality.

“We should look to the history of civil rights in this country as an example — the advances we’ve seen have been the product of a lot of people, a lot of hard work and a lot of heart to lead to incremental gains over time,” Masuoka says. “We should all respect the ongoing fights for the right to vote, see each of ourselves in this effort and remember: It really does take a community to blaze a trail toward social justice.”

“The good faith of American citizens is what is necessary”

“The first thing I think every citizen has to do — and none of us are great at it all the time — is to commit to honoring the election outcome, whether or not it went the way we wanted it to,” says Chad Dunn, a UCLA lecturer in law. “Heated election rhetoric should not prevent us from being open-minded about different ideas and different solutions to difficult problems.”

Chad Dunn is inspired by what he sees in his students: Its heartening to know that these young folks will leave UCLA and go to all corners of our country as ambassadors for democracy.

Dunn is the co-founder and legal director of the UCLA Voting Rights Project, a joint program of the Luskin School of Public Affairs, the UCLA School of Law and the UCLA Division of Social Sciences. The project operates under the understanding that the struggle to protect democracy — as a matter of politics, as well as a matter of law — will never be complete: that every generation has to resecure these rights.

In addition to education and research, the project runs a legal clinic where non-law students in areas such as social science and public policy become expert witnesses and advisors to legal teams engaged in voting-rights litigation. It also trains law students to find and work on real-world litigation on cases throughout the country in which voting rights are in jeopardy.

One example of the project’s success: a case that dealt with Franklin County, Washington, which has a 52% Latino population but whose county commission had only ever elected white candidates over the past 20 years. Ultimately, local voters believed that the at-large voting structure — in which all voters across the county cast their ballots for all candidates, rather than electing members by district — diluted the voting power of Latinos.

Invoking the federal Voting Rights Act, Dunn and the team brought a case to force the county to elect by district. They have since prevailed all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the appeal remains pending.

“Assuming our success in that case holds — and I think it will — Latino citizens will elect a candidate of choice to the Franklin County Commission for the first time ever,” Dunn says. “But there is a misconception out there that you have to be Black or Latino or Asian American or Native American to get the advantages of the Voting Rights Act. Its fundamental guarantee applies to and benefits everyone. We all should agree that there should be fair representation.” 

Unfortunately, even the idea of what is “fair” has become a highly contentious topic. The concept of equal access should be universally agreed upon. Instead, it’s often used as a cudgel. “It’s no question that the good faith of American citizens is what is necessary,” Dunn says. “To paraphrase Ben Franklin, we have a republic if we can keep it.” He sees hope in the students he works with: When he started at UCLA, an average of 10 students would sign up for each of the project’s courses; now, the average class size is more than 50.

“Every year, students across disciplines show up and are absolutely dedicated to the cause of preserving the right to vote for everyone,” Dunn says. “It’s heartening to know that these young folks will leave UCLA, the preeminent public university in the U.S., and go to all corners of our country as ambassadors for democracy.”

Our guiding principle is: How can we ensure that all Americans have the same equal right to vote, and the same equal right to elect candidates of their choice? 

“Voting is the most important thing we can do”

“When it comes to the current condition of democracy in America, I’d say that, unfortunately, it seems to vary state by state right now,” says Matt Barreto, professor of political science and Chicana/o studies, founder of the Latino Policy & Politics Institute and co-founder of the UCLA Voting Rights Project. “We should expect to have more national unifying standards: equal access to the vote, ensuring that all votes are counted, and districting with lines drawn fairly. But our Congress has not been able to get a consensus to pass any new national standards.”

Matt Bareto says whether big or little in scope, every voting rights issue now in the courts matters. All of those cases, he says, are equally important.

Especially concerning to Barreto is the public opinion fomented on Jan. 6, 2021, and the flurry of lawsuits subsequently filed by Rudy Giuliani and other Trump lawyers alleging voter fraud. While none of the suits were successful, the fact that it fell upon the court system to serve as a bulwark for civil rights serves as a reminder of the famous quote that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.

“When it comes to democracy, so far the judiciary has continued to work — but when it doesn’t, that will become the point in time at which the separation of powers is lost, and we will have a constitutional crisis,” Barreto says. “We could easily have reached that point in 2020 or 2021. We don’t win every single case that gets filed. But what would cause me to become very nervous would be for judges to start uniformly striking down the Voting Rights Act.”

Enter the UCLA Voting Rights Project. Its litigation team monitors actions taken by cities and states that could restrict or dilute any community’s ability to vote. Each of these potential cases is carefully researched and its data and voting patterns objectively analyzed. A matter is only taken to the courts if local partners and organizations in the community reach out to UCLA because they are frustrated about a lack of representation.

Ensuring that every American has equal access to both the ballot box and to representation is especially resonant for Barreto, who remembers growing up in Kansas and going to a polling place with his father, who had proudly received his U.S. citizenship after moving to the U.S. from Peru. Voting in his first American election, Barreto’s father had questions about the process, but there was no information available at the polls in Spanish. It fell to Barreto — like so many U.S.-born children of immigrants — to try and help his parent navigate the process. In doing so, he experienced firsthand the human reality of abstract ideals of justice — after all, whether they’re national and era-defining or local and smaller scale, U.S. elections are decided by the votes cast by individuals, each of whom has a story, a perspective and a reason. 

Barreto carries this lesson about the importance of empowering all citizens to understand, access and exercise their voting rights with him in his work, celebrating recent rights victories in Alabama for Black voters, in Texas for Black and Latino voters, and in North Dakota for Sioux and other American Indian voters — with the latter two decisions being made by Trump-appointed judges. Whether the fight is at the Supreme Court or in a rural county in New Mexico, Barreto is out there, fighting.

“I’ve worked on little tiny cases and 30,000-person jurisdictions; I was a lead expert witness in the Florida lawsuit against Ron DeSantis that’s ongoing right now in front of a three-judge panel, but then I also will be testifying about Dodge City, Kansas, which is 20,000 people,” he says. “All of those cases are equally important, and it’s been really exciting to see UCLA play a role in finding some of these local jurisdictions that often get overlooked. Our guiding principle is: How can we ensure that all Americans have the same equal right to vote, and the same equal right to elect candidates of their choice? 

“That’s what we want to keep working on, no matter what the demographics of any city, county or the nation are,” he adds. “Voting is the most important thing we can do to ensure that our representative democracy is responsive to our voices. And to remind elected officials that they work for us.”

Brian Stauffer
What YOU Can Do: Advice From the Experts


Don’t sit on the sidelines. Get involved when redistricting comes around to your city or county. Learn more about it; find out who’s drawing the lines and why. In the meantime, be aware of the logistics of getting engaged: Be registered to vote, help other people in your community register, and be aware of the different deadlines and rules. Helping people in your community get registered to vote is one of the most important things that any of us can do. —Matt Barreto

Don’t buy into the voter fraud narrative. Do not believe misconceptions, including that there’s extensive voter fraud or illegal voting taking place. I’ve handled election contests around the country, and it’s not surprising to see some illegal voting, but the elections where the amount of voter fraud makes a difference are infinitesimally small and almost always on a smaller scale, where the vote spread is maybe five or six. So maybe every election cycle, you could have a county race where voter fraud impacted the outcome, but when you’re talking about most elections — in cities, for Congress, for the president of the United States — voter fraud is not changing the outcome. People constantly sounding the alarm about voter fraud are usually motivated by reasons other than the truth. —Chad Dunn

Fact-check. Educate yourself, check your facts and do not share information that’s not verified. Consider becoming a poll worker or volunteering for a campaign — there is a lot of room for public input in our system. And after an election concludes, if you’re on the side that loses, don’t assume illegitimacy based solely on that fact. —Richard Hasen

Keep your eye on the prize. Vote — and, as you do so, recognize how hard we’ve worked to ensure equity for all Americans to have access to that right. I hope that is something everyone, regardless of their politics, remains mindful of. —Natalie Masuoka

Read more from UCLA Magazine’s Spring 2024 issue.