Sociology Student Testifies Before Congress in Support of John Lewis Voting Rights Act

June 23, 2021

“Seeing the real-world impact of the research that I’m doing — that’s a gratifying experience to have as a grad student.”

Kevin Morris
Kevin Morris

When Kevin Morris, a second-year student in the Ph.D. Program in Sociology, testified before Congress this month in support of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, he felt well prepared for the treatment he received from some members of the panel.

His colleagues at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law, where he has worked as a researcher for three years, had spent a lot of time running through the types of questions and tactics he was likely to encounter in his remote appearance before the Elections Subcommittee of the Committee on House Administration. Thanks to their help, “I got knocked around more in the practice testimony than in the actual questioning, which is how you want it to go,” Morris says.

Morris was testifying on his research showing the discrimination faced by racial and ethnic minorities after the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision, which struck down the preclearance condition of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The preclearance condition required jurisdictions with histories of racial discrimination in their voting practices to get the Department of Justice or a federal judge to sign off on any changes to their voting regulations before the changes could go into effect. 

This condition was reauthorized by Congress every few years through the early 2000s. However, in the eight years since the formula that determined which jurisdictions fell under its mandate was struck down, many states have acted to change their voting practices in ways that have discriminatory impacts. “The John Lewis Act proposes an update to the formula and would bring back the preclearance condition,” Morris says. “Passing the act would avoid having to sue each time a state tries to enact repressive measures. Litigation takes a lot of time, it’s costly, and it can often only be done after the bill goes into effect.”

When he started his Ph.D. program, Morris cut back a bit on his work at the Brennan Center, but the overlap between his research and Sociology courses has helped him to manage his time. “It’s a lot,” he says of his workload. “But I really appreciate remaining grounded in the advocacy space while doing my doctoral program — being able to finish up coursework and then go testify before Congress.”

Morris hopes to continue working in advocacy after completing his Ph.D. For other students who might be interested in that type of work, he recommends “finding scholars who are doing interesting, publicly engaged work, and getting to know them. There’s so much work to be done.”

He has found the experience rewarding, even during the busiest times, such as the 2020 election. “Seeing the real-world impact of the research that I’m doing — that’s a gratifying experience to have as a grad student.”