For thousands of lawyers across the United States, Election Day isn’t just about casting ballots for their preferred candidates. It’s also about making sure that the system under which Americans vote works as it’s supposed to.
Take Century City, California–based Reed Smith litigation partner Miles Cooley, who is coordinating his firm’s efforts in connection with Election Protection—a nonpartisan initiative backed by a coalition of legal and civil rights groups that has enlisted thousands of volunteers to field voters’ questions about election laws and to help sort out legal challenges that may arise at the polls through the group’s toll-free hotline, 1-866-OUR-VOTE. Election Protection will also have lawyers on the ground at a number of polling sites come Election Day.
Cooley says voters can call the hotline “to report voting problems, to find out where their polling stations are, to otherwise ask election-related questions the day before and the day of Election Day.”
Reed Smith is hosting call centers in its Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles offices. The firm’s Pittsburgh and Falls Church, Virginia, offices, meanwhile, will be host to what Cooley calls “command centers”—locations dedicated to relaying any legal issues that crop up at polling places or elsewhere to election officials or the media, as necessary. Cooley says he expects up to 125 volunteers from his firm in total, with attorneys and paralegals in other Reed Smith offices also participating in a number of other cities where Election Protection will have operations.
All told, Election Protection expects roughly 2,000 volunteers manning the call centers and another 1,500 in the field keeping an eye on polling sites, according to Nancy Anderson, director of Legal Mobilization and Pro Bono for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which is administering the hotline.
This will be the third iteration of Election Protection, which was established by the lawyers’ committee and such other groups as Common Cause in the wake of the 2000 election’s Florida recount and the ensuing legal battles.
Anderson says 16 large law firms are on board to host call centers in various U.S. cities this year, with additional firms represented through the involvement of their attorneys. Bingham McCutchen, for example, will have people working the phones in its Washington, D.C., and San Francisco offices, while Kirkland & Ellis will open its New York and San Francisco locations. Davis Polk & Wardwell, Lowenstein Sandler, Proskauer Rose, Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, and Sullivan & Cromwell are also playing host to phone banks in their New York offices. So is Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson—with a twist: the operation at its lower Manhattan office will be geared toward those who speak Spanish. Other Am Law firms hosting call centers include Dorsey & Whitney, in Minneapolis; Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton, in Atlanta; and Munger, Tolles & Olson in Los Angeles.
Once attorneys volunteer to participate, hosting firms collaborate with Election Protection on training to prepare volunteers for the questions they are most likely to hear. “We have a fairly detailed script of almost every conceivable kind of question that might come up that people who take calls are trained to answer,” Cooley says.
Anderson says those volunteering at some call centers will receive extra training on election laws specific to certain states, but that the largest centers are expected to field calls from all over the country. Kirkland litigation partner Adam Humann says as many as 280 attorneys and legal assistants will participate in his firm’s New York call center, which will be set up to respond to callers from New York, Wisconsin, Iowa, North Dakota, and Kansas.
Reed Smith has been hosting call centers at various offices since 2004, and Cooley says the issues and questions that pour into the hotline run the gamut from voters asking what types of identification they need show at their polling place to how to get to their polling place to more serious claims of voter intimidation. He says the legal battles waged in multiple states over voting rights and identification laws this year have created the kind of confusion likely to increase demand on the call centers: “I think that, as we get closer to the election, you can see the gloves come off and the brass knuckles come on and I think there’s going to be around the country reports of many issues of that regard.”
Anderson agrees, adding that even government volunteers at polling sites could be confused by the recent battles over voter ID laws. “The poll workers in the states and the counties, it’s just hard at the last minute to keep this all straight. So, we expect to see a lot of questions and concerns about that,” she says.
Anderson says that many of the volunteering lawyers receive pro bono credit from their firms for participating, which may have helped recruiting by adding a draw for attorneys in addition to the opportunity to participate in the democratic process.
“It’s something that [Reed Smith] gives full pro bono credit for, so it’s a win-win,” Cooley says, adding that this would likely not be the case were the program affiliated with a particular political party.
More important for Cooley, though, is that the program gives attorneys a chance to spend Election Day offering their services to the public.
“I think lawyers sometimes get a bad rap, obviously there’s a lot of lawyer jokes,” he says. “But, the reality of the situation is that . . . lawyers can play a really valuable civic role.”