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Ifill Hands Voting Rights Fight to New Generation of Leaders (1)

Nov. 17, 2021, 8:30 PMUpdated: Nov. 17, 2021, 10:25 PM

Sherrilyn Ifill, head of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, will step down in 2022, but her successor is primed to uphold her legacy of defending marginalized voters nationwide, voting rights advocates said.

Ifill, the fund’s president and director-counsel, announced Wednesday she will leave her role next spring. Ifill has been a significant champion for civil rights and justice—especially on issues of voter suppression—throughout her career.

Her announcement comes amid battles over restrictive voting laws and racial gerrymandering in states like Texas, Alabama, and South Carolina. However, Ifill’s pending departure doesn’t mean the voting rights battle ends, advocates said.

“The attacks on the right to vote are so vicious and the targeting of Black voters so unrelenting that we do not intend to skip a beat in our fight to protect the right to vote and expose the anti-democratic agenda of extreme conservatives who seek to undermine our electoral process,” Janai Nelson, who will succeed Ifill, told Bloomberg Law.

“LDF is well-positioned to continue to lead this charge, especially as we approach the midterm elections with an eye toward 2024 and as we engage in the battle of redistricting.”

Nelson, Ifill’s associate director who began her career at the Legal Defense Fund while still a student at UCLA School of Law, means the fund will continue its efforts without delays.

“Her smooth and well-planned transition is a reminder that the movement was never just about one person, and I think that’s the beauty of her leadership to make that kind of space for all of us to continue banding together,” said Damon Hewitt, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

‘A Natural Fit’

“This is a natural fit, not just because she was Sherrilyn’s deputy, but also because she cut her teeth at the beginning of her career at LDF,” Hewitt said. “So when it comes to voter rights, I expect LDF to continue to be not just in the fold but continue to be leaders in this work.”

Richard L. Hasen, a professor of law and political science at UCI and co-director of the Fair Elections and Free Speech Center, said Nelson has all the qualities needed to continue the voting rights battle.

“This is not a battle that can be won or lost in a single case; it’s a lifetime struggle, unfortunately,” Hasen said. “[Ifill] has left huge shoes to fill, and if anyone can do it, it is [Nelson], who is smart, strategic, and indefatigable.”

Sheila Foster, professor of law and public policy and associate dean for equity and inclusion at Georgetown Law, likened the handoff from Ifill to Nelson to the transition from prior Legal Defense Fund head Elaine Jones to Ifill.

“Her transition left everyone like, ‘Oh my God, what are they doing?’” Foster said. “So, we’ll all be watching and have tremendous confidence and great hope that [Nelson] will pick up the baton and fly with it, because she has the same passion, but she’ll also develop, both the organization and her leadership over time, just as [Ifill] had to do.”

Nelson said that under Ifill the group had “significantly expanded our election protection apparatus and our offense and defense game to secure equal access to the ballot for all Americans,” work she would continue.

A Passion for Voting Rights

Ifill’s voting rights legacy began in 1988, when she joined LDF as an assistant counsel.

She litigated the landmark Houston Lawyers’ Association v. Attorney General of Texas in 1991, when the Supreme Court ruled that the election of trial court judges is covered by Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which protects the voting power of minority groups.

She became president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in 2013. Under her direction, voting rights took center stage, particularly voter fraud allegations in the 2020 presidential election.

“Sherrilyn Ifill is one of the most important lawyers in our country right now,” said Howard University School of Law Dean Danielle Holley-Walker.

Last year, Ifill was involved in efforts to push Facebook Inc. and other social media platforms to do more to combat racism and voter suppression on their sites.

She also testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in April on the current state of voting rights and how people of color have been targeted by voter suppression laws and intimidation.

In the time she has left, Ifill told Bloomberg Law she intends to fight for stronger voting rights protections.

“Ensuring passage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act remain priorities,” Ifill said.

“Just this week I have been engaged with members of Congress and with my civil rights colleagues, strategizing on how we push these critical measures forward. There will be no loss of momentum in our advocacy to protect voting rights. Our democracy and the full citizenship of Black people in this country depends on it.”

— With assistance from Ellen Gilmer

(Adds new comment. Earlier version corrected relationship between fund and NAACP.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Ayanna Alexander in Washington at aalexander@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Andrew Childers at achilders@bloomberglaw.com; Meghashyam Mali at mmali@bloombergindustry.com