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Ten Questions for Gracia Hillman

Sean McElwee

Gracia Hillman, Demos’ newest fellow, is contributing to the organization’s efforts to expand the freedom to vote for all of America’s citizens. Hillman’s areas of expertise include voter engagement, voting rights, election administration, as well as the interests and rights of women, racial minorities and people with disabilities. 

From 2003 to 2010, Hillman was a commissioner of the Election Assistance Commission, serving as its chair in 2005. Her distinguished professional experience also includes having served as Senior Coordinator for International Women’s Issues at the U.S. Department of State, Executive Director of the US League of Women Voters, and Executive Director of the National Coalition on Black Voter Participation.

What inspires you to work tirelessly on voting rights?

My grandparents were immigrants to the United States in the early 1900s and there’s a large Cape Verdean community in New England, particularly in the New Bedford, Massachusetts area, because of the whaling trade. It became apparent in the early seventies while the United States was going through its major course correction on civil rights, integration and equal opportunity that Cape Verdean Americans were not being elected to office. At that time you had to go either to City Hall or to the fire station or the public library so I organized a small group of people to bring voter registration activities to public housing projects. That was my first foray into elections, and I began to realize the impediments that stopped people from fully participating in elections and also the possibilities. 

What drew you to Demos?

I became familiar with Demos when I served on the U.S. Election Assistance Commission and I greatly appreciated its commitment to fairness and access to the franchise. I also have tremendous respect for Miles Rapoport who I met when he was Secretary of State of Connecticut. [Rapoport is the former president of Demos, who left in March 2014]

What work will you be pursuing as a Demos Senior Fellow?

I will be looking at election administration—the things that advocates and individuals in communities need to stay on top of potential changes to voter ID requirements or other changes officials may be contemplating. I will also be forging working relationships with people who are the chief election official for their jurisdiction, to ensure that officials will explore with the community what the impact of any potential change might be and look for new ideas that are cost effective that can work to make sure that everybody has equal access to voting.

What contemporary connection do you see between women’s rights and voting?

Elections open up a whole dialogue about getting a community engaged and particularly for low-income women. Low-income women really get the brunt of all the changes to public policy procedure and they’re left to fend for themselves. When women have access to resources and are engaged in the changes it makes the transition a lot easier. Any time the community is going to go through any change with election procedures with voting rights issues it affects families. 

Tell us your thoughts about the confluence between economic and political power.

Certainly economic power affects political participation to the extent that elected officials need money to get their job and to hold onto their job. Legislators have to spend an inordinate amount of time raising the money as the cost of running for even a state legislative seat is just getting obscene. Politicians dance to a tune and individuals and groups come to the table with money more often than not for that very purpose. The little guy gets left out. Even while we resolve the situation of minimizing the influence of the big bucks we also must stop the partisan political shenanigans that prevent voting process from being fully open.

You’ve worked on the local, state, and federal levels. What’d you learn from those experiences?

One of the things that irked me throughout the 80s were nationally organized efforts to do grassroots activities. When I worked at Operation Big Vote we had a coalition model and all communities had to work on their efforts through a coalition. The coalition was convened and organized by local groups. Our end goal was not only to increase the number of African-Americans who were registered and voting but also have a model left behind so the community could continue to use it throughout time for any election. 

You’ve also worked at the international level. How does your work on elections in Asia, Africa and Europe inform your understanding of U.S. democracy?

One big lesson is that sometimes simple is better. Countries that knew they had a high level of illiteracy would have to use a symbol or a candidate's picture so that people could instantly recognize who it was they were voting for. The United States used to be hailed as a great example for voter registration and voter education activities, but now  we’ve made it so darn complicated. Other countries are more willing to use technology so that people can vote from phones or other mobile devices and the goal is to encourage people to vote, rather than restrict voting because you have to be in a particular place on a particular date during particular hours. 

You worked on the Dukakis campaign for President. Dukakis is a big hero of mine. Tell me about that experience. 

At that time I had been asked to serve as Executive Director for the Congressional Black Caucus foundation and I said, “well it better be interim, because when Dukakis becomes the Democratic nominee I’m going to go to the campaign full time.” They laughed because they didn’t think he had a chance. Lo and behold it was just a really well-thought out and structured campaign. There were some blips and I think the unraveling of it was when Bernard Shaw asked the governor the question about if his wife had been raped and murdered. That put the campaign in a tail-spin and Republicans used the Willie Horton issue, the death penalty and work release programs.

You brought up Willie Horton. That raises the question of the criminal justice system and voting.

We have a criminal justice system that operates on the principle that if you’re convicted and you serve your time, that you come back and are in a rehabilitative process so you will be a productive citizen. We say that, but we don’t behave that way. For a few years I served on the board of an organization here in D.C. that serviced women who had been incarcerated and returning to their communities in D.C. Part of re-integrating into the community includes voting, so to permanently deny someone the right to vote makes little sense.

Drawing from your work at all levels, what measures do you think could be really beneficially going forward in the next decade?

We should establish uniform procedures across the fifty states, so that if you are eligible to vote in any of those jurisdictions and you move, it’s easier to get that registration transferred to the jurisdiction where you will vote. Even some states right now can’t communicate within the state agencies because the types of computer systems that are used by the individual agencies don’t communicate with each other. We have to work towards one form of voter identification that can be used and easily tracked throughout the country.