If voting machines in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, broke down on Tuesday, or if a New York voter displaced by Hurricane Sandy was not sure where to cast a ballot, then there’s a good chance someone in Kirkland & Ellis’s New York office heard about it.
The firm’s office hosted a call center on Election Day to field questions about election laws from voters around the country while also providing assistance on the ground at various polling sites. The effort was in conjunction with Election Protection, a nonpartisan initiative supported by a variety of legal and civil rights groups that has recruited thousands of volunteers to man its toll-free hotline, 1-866-OUR-VOTE. As The Am Law Daily has reported, Kirkland is one of several Am Law firms offering up volunteers and office space this year to host call centers in New York and other locations across the country. The firm has been hosting call centers since 2002.
On Tuesday, about 40 phone stations lined long tables that formed a circle around a large conference room on the 50th floor of Kirkland’s midtown Manhattan office. The volunteers—mostly consisting of Kirkland lawyers and staff, but also drawing on lawyers from the New York offices of other firms—received advance training in order to answer questions on voter laws in the areas this particular call center services: New York, Wisconsin, Iowa, North Dakota, and Kansas. Volunteers were also provided with computers and binders full of information relevant to the states covered to ensure they could handle voters’ questions.
By midday, calls were already flooding in from around the country. Adam Humann, a Kirkland litigation partner who has volunteered with Election Protection since 2006 and now heads the firm’s Election Day efforts, says the call center had received 71 calls from voters within just a 15-minute period shortly after noon. Questions ran the gamut from voters simply trying to find the appropriate polling location to more serious reports of potential disenfranchisement. Should a more serious issue arise, such as reports of voter intimidation, volunteers on the phones were to relay those reports to Election Protection “captains” in the office like Humann, who in turn would contact officials at the Board of Elections.
“The call volume is just beyond what I’ve seen,” says Humann.
The aftermath of Hurricane Sandy may have had something to do with the increase, as a number of calls dealt with voters displaced by the storm scrambling to find their polling places. An executive order issued by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo on Monday allowed state residents in areas affected by the storm to vote at any polling place in the state. Humann says some callers simply needed help from local election officials to ensure that poll workers would, in fact, allow them to vote at a different site.
But even with the state’s concession, voting remained difficult for relief workers who traveled from other regions to pitch in with the storm recovery effort. Kirkland litigation partner Marjorie Lindblom, who is a director and trustee of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which administers the Election Protection hotline, says one utility worker from Rochester who came down to help turn on the power in Westchester County wasn’t able to vote. She adds that while Cuomo’s order was “a terrific step,” it did not make all the necessary accommodations.
Although there was some concern that the aftermath of the storm would weaken volunteer efforts on Election Day, the call centers were able to adjust. Of the seven Am Law firms that had planned to host call centers in their New York offices, Sullivan & Cromwell and Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson both had to drop out due to storm damage. But fortunately, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom stepped up at the last minute to host a call center for voters who speak Spanish in Fried Frank’s stead, according to Nancy Anderson, the director of Legal Mobilization and Pro Bono for the Lawyers’ Committee.
“We’ve seen at the other call centers that folks have really just risen to the occasion,” Anderson says.
Anderson adds that Davis, Polk & Wardwell, which also hosted a call center in its New York office, coordinated with both the New York State Bar and the City Bar associations on a last-minute recruitment effort to bolster the ranks of volunteers at polling sites for the election.
Despite concerns over staffing, Humann says all of Kirkland’s call center shifts had been filled for the later part of the day and he and Lindblom expected a total of nearly 170 volunteers throughout the day.
“I’m amazed how many people have shown up,” Lindblom says. “We were really concerned that we would lose a lot of volunteers. But not only did most of the people who’d originally signed up show up, but other people signed up on a last-minute basis.”
Volunteers sat through four-hour shifts that ran from 8:30 a.m. to nearly 9 p.m. the day before the election, and from 5:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. on Election Day. (Some of the volunteers, who received pro bono credit for participating, even chose to take on multiple shifts.) During breaks between calls, some volunteers could be heard swapping stories from some of their zanier calls, with one volunteer saying he had a man ask if it was alright to wear a shirt advertising the Democratic Party to his polling place.
Alexis Brine was among the volunteers working the phones on Tuesday. A first-year associate who just joined Kirkland in October, Brine says she saw volunteering for the call center as a great opportunity to make sure people around the country are able to vote. She says that much of her time Tuesday was spent helping voters find their polling place.
“A lot of people aren’t at home, so even though we tell them, ‘You can vote anywhere’ . . . they just don’t know where the nearest polling place to where they are right now is,” she says.