FROM CAMPUS TO THE COURTROOM
Sean Young has always felt a deep commitment to fighting for justice and equity. While completing his undergraduate degree in economics at Duke University, Young became involved in many racial justice initiatives through student government and extracurricular activities. Though passionate about ensuring equity for all students, Young was cognizant of the fact that he had little power as an individual student, prompting him to run for president of Duke’s student government. After receiving the second most votes, the students running the elections decided that Young would go into a run-off race, only to reverse their decision less than 24 hours later. Young decided to file a challenge against the election commissioners’ decision, which required him to make a legal argument based on student government bylaws beforea student judiciary. Although he lost, Young believes it was still a valuable experience. “It was the first time in my life that I felt like I was doing something that I really enjoyed. There was something about it that lit a spark.”
Young had never seen himself as a future lawyer until he learned how “the law was actually an effective and powerful tool to bring about social justice.” He appreciated the power that the courts have to order the government to abide by the Constitution because as a student, “all [he] could do was raise [his] voice and no one had to listen.” And although Young enjoyed economics, he admitted to his economics advisor that he instead wanted to pursue something “that has a more observable and practical impact.” His advisor suggested that Young attend law school, and after reflecting on how much he had enjoyed challenging the student election commission’s decision and his passion for social justice, Young decided to attend law school at Yale Law School.
VOTING RIGHTS ADVOCACY
Sean Young is currently the Legal Director of the ACLU of Georgia, where he is in charge of mapping out legal strategy and overseeing litigation. Young’s years of expertise makes him an excellent asset to the ACLU of Georgia’s work on voting rights, a pressing and relevant issue given the recent 2020 election and the upcoming runoff elections for Georgia’s two seats in the United States Senate.
While working as a litigation associate for two prominent law firms before and after clerkships with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York and later the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, Young gained significant experience doing pro bono work, which prepared him to pursue civil rights law. Young became interested in voting rights specifically because of a significant push in the early 2010s by local, state, and federal governments to make it harder for Black people in particular to vote following record-breaking Black turnout. Young attributes his shock at politicians attempting to limit voting rights to his own naïveté and lack of education on the United States’ history of voter suppression. Young states, “I was focused on racial justice issues in the areas of housing and education, but in my complete naïveté I never would have expected politicians to go out of their way to actually make it harder for people to exercise their fundamental right to vote.” Young sees voting rights as “the non-negotiable seed of civil rights,” and cannot comprehend why someone “would so flagrantly attack that right.”
Young first started working for the ACLU at its national chapter’s Voting Rights Project, where he developed skills and expertise in voting rights. Young greatly enjoyed the work he was doing to expand voting rights in states such as Wisconsin and Ohio, but he didn’t feel comfortable “parachuting in” from New York only to leave once the case was won. “I would make these relationships with people on the ground but could not maintain them – and more importantly, I didn’t get to have a holistic view of all the things happening on the ground that were very relevant to the narrow lawsuit I was bringing,” says Young. Young stresses the importance of not getting too myopic about individual cases, asserting that lawyers need to understand how their work fits into everything else going on in the area. Young decided to return to his roots in the South to help advance the cause of voting rights at the ACLU of Georgia in 2017, as the new Legal Director. “It was quite exciting for me to build a program in the way that I thought made the most sense. What I found really rewarding is that I’m not just bringing voting rights lawsuits, I’m also working with election officials of all parties to achieve goals that make a meaningful difference in elections,” explains Young. “My vision is for it to be as easy to vote for a single mother with three jobs as it is for Ted Turner.” Though Young’s vision has yet to be realized, he hopes that he has made some difference toward one day making it a reality.
CHALLENGES AND LESSONS OF 2020
Reflecting on the 2020 general election and the upcoming runoff election in Georgia, Young believes that the biggest voting rights issue to pay attention to right now is absentee voting. “Absentee voting is now suddenly a target, undeservedly so. There are a lot of politicians who suddenly want to make it harder to cast an absentee ballot because they didn’t like the result [of the 2020 election]. As we’ve seen in our 150 year history, any time African Americans flex their political muscle, the government reacts swiftly to make it harder to vote. Vote suppressors will then use unsubstantiated claims about voter fraud as an excuse to do so rather than thinking about how to persuade more voters to vote for a particular candidate or party,” states Young. For the runoff elections in Georgia, Young is cautiously optimistic that there will be no successful attempts at voter suppression by the government, though “not for lack of trying.” Some Georgia lawmakers have called for a special session of the state legislature to change voter ID laws before the runoff election, but other leaders have rejected this call. Looking ahead to the regular 2021 legislative session, however, “it appears that some will find ways to intentionally make it harder for people to vote,” says Young.
Young’s main concern for the upcoming runoff election in Georgia is absentee ballot processing times; he states that “the absentee ballot application processing times continue to be a thorn in the side of democracy in Georgia.” Young commends the work that has been done to improve this issue, but he believes that it still takes too long for voters to receive their absentee ballot after applying. According to Young, the main reasons for these long wait times are that elections officials have relied on third party vendors and haven’t developed the systems yet for themselves to send these ballots to voters who have requested them faster. Absentee ballots can sometimes take weeks to arrive once requested, which is an especially big issue in Georgia where completed absentee ballots have to arrive back to elections officials by Election Day in order to be counted. “With the uncertainties of the U.S. Postal Service, you have to mail in your absentee ballots yesterday,” says Young. The ACLU of Georgia recommends that people put their absentee ballot in the mail two to three weeks in advance of Election Day in order to allow time to correct any mistakes that may have been made and to account for postal service delays. “If you are able to do so and feel comfortable doing so safely, we urge people to vote early and in person,” says Young, describing early voting as the “gold standard” of voting as it allows voters to cast their ballot with plenty of time to resolve any issues that may exist with their ballot, alleviates the issue of long lines on Election Day, and lessens the number of bureaucratic problems that exist with by-mail voting. For those unable to vote early and in person, Young urges that they request their absentee ballot as far in advance of Election Day as they can and, if possible, that they return it via a dropbox rather than through the mail.
Sean Young is a proud member of the National LGBT Bar Association, and spoke about voting rights on a plenary session at our 2019 Lavender Law® Conference and Career Fair. He currently serves on the Board of the Stonewall Bar Association in Georgia, and was a recipient of the National LGBT Bar Association’s 2019 Best LGBTQ+ Lawyers Under 40 Award. In addition, he was awarded Georgia Attorney of the Year in 2019 by the Daily Report, an ALM Publication. The LGBT Bar is proud to have Young as a member, and thanks him for all the work he is doing to preserve voting rights.