Fall 2022

Khalilah Spencer, ’01: Fighting for Voting Rights

By Sharon Morioka

Khalilah Spencer, ’01, speaks with reporters.
Khalilah Spencer, ’01, speaks with reporters.

As president of Promote the Vote 2022, Khalilah Spencer, ’01, is leading the campaign for an amendment to Michigan’s state constitution that would expand voting rights. 

The Promote the Vote 2022 ballot initiative aims to make voting more convenient and secure, regardless of the candidate or party that someone supports, says Spencer, a litigation partner at Honigman LLP who also serves as the firm’s inclusion, equity, and social responsibility partner. The amendment would create nine days of early in-person voting; require that all military ballots postmarked by election day are counted; allow for voter verification by photo ID or signed statement; provide state funds for applications, postage, and secure drop boxes for absentee ballots; and establish protocols for conducting post-election audits, among other related measures.

“It’s really not controversial,” says Spencer. “We’re not telling people how to vote, we’re just giving them more access to the ballot.” 

Promote the Vote 2022, a coalition of more than 30 organizations, follows a successful 2018 ballot initiative that also amended the state constitution to expand voting rights. The 2018 reforms included no-reason absentee voting and same-day registration.

“We worked on implementation of the 2018 ballot initiative in 2019, and we saw in 2020 how it positively affected voter turnout,” says Spencer. “Once we realized how successful it was and how the partnerships worked well together on these issues, we wanted to continue that.” 

To develop the proposed 2022 amendment, organizers collected input from Michigan voters about what they wanted in terms of expanded voting rights. They then assembled a diverse and bipartisan group of lawyers to draft the amendment. 

“Those various groups all weighed in: What should be included? What are the gaps from 2020? And then we wanted to see if people would approve of it, and they did, overwhelmingly.”

When the group filed 669,972 signatures on July 11, it surpassed the 425,059 required to be placed on the ballot in the November 8 election. 

One reason the initiative was so successful in collecting signatures, Spencer says, was that voters experienced the benefits of the 2018 amendment, especially as COVID affected how and where people voted in the 2020 election.

“Once people understand that no-reason absentee voting works, that they can vote from home, that they can drop their ballot in the drop box, that it makes voting more and more convenient, it increases voter turnout.”

Spencer first became involved with activism during her undergraduate years at U-M, where she studied political science. As a Black law student from 1999 to 2001, she was witness to a historic event that served as a real-life lesson to complement her academic studies: Grutter v. Bollinger. The case eventually came before the US Supreme Court in 2003, and the ruling upheld the right of the University to consider race in admissions to the Law School.

“That was an interesting time to be in the Law School, with people saying, ‘You really don’t deserve to be here.’ And we were interviewed for some of the defense work that the Law School was doing. There was a lot of activism across campus, so I think I understood political efficacy and how you have to have people engage in the democratic process. You couldn’t be in the law school bubble.”

Spencer’s passion for activism continued after graduation, initially finding an outlet as a challenger for the Democratic Party in 2004. The experience gave her direct insights into voting rights and the importance of election protection.

Nearly 20 years later, she’s still fighting for these causes. If the Promote the Vote 2022 ballot proposal is successful, the next steps involve educating voters via the organization’s partners and others so they understand their rights and how voting directly affects their lives. 

“People are worried about how they’re going to feed their families, what the gas prices are, but they need to understand the connection between voting and implementation of policies that they think are important.” 

After this issue of the Law Quadrangle went to press, Michigan voters overwhelmingly approved the proposal.