As Americans head to the polls on Tuesday, law firms across the country are banding together in election protection efforts, readying to staff voter hotlines during what many expect could be a more contentious Election Day than any cycle in recent memory.
Organized by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, more than 100 of the country’s largest corporate firms and legal departments have enlisted volunteers to answer voter hotline calls or do field work. The pro bono work comes as part of the Lawyers’ Committee’s Election Protection program, a nonpartisan effort to safeguard voting rights.
Davis Polk & Wardwell senior counsel Daniel Kolb said he and others from his firm were already working the phones on Monday at a call center in the firm’s New York City office. As voters head out on Election Day to choose the country’s next president and other elected officials, Davis Polk’s call center will have 50 open phone lines—including 10 Spanish-language lines—between 5:30 a.m. and 9:30 p.m., Kolb said.
“Every seat’s filled, and there’s a backup,” he said. “We’re talking hundreds of volunteers.”
A day before the election, Kolb said the call volumes were already high—among the highest he could recall before an election since his firm began participating in the Election Protection program in 2004.
Kolb said that in a few instances on Monday, would-be voters reached out after receiving a deceptive message on Facebook, instructing them to vote by text message instead of physically going to the polls. He added that volunteers have also prepared this year to respond to any instances of voter intimidation that may arise. But Kolb stressed that he doesn’t expect intimidation issues in New York.
“The vast majority of people are either experiencing concern about where to vote … and if there are registration issues, what do they do?” Kolb said. “The problems on Election Day tend to be somewhat different — polls not opening, people demanding that they produce ID when they don’t have to.”
Kirkland & Ellis will also be taking part, with more than 200 lawyers lined up to volunteer on Election Day from New York to Chicago to San Francisco.
Kirkland’s 56 volunteers in Chicago represent about 25 percent of the Election Protection volunteers there, said Michael Paley, a private equity partner who serves as the field captain for the Lawyers’ Committee’s election volunteers in Lake County, Illinois, just north of Chicago.
From 5:30 a.m. until Lake County polls close at 7 p.m., Paley will spend his day at the offices of DLA Piper, the Election Day headquarters for the local call center. He’ll field calls from the roughly 30 field volunteers who report to him.
During past elections, Paley said, most of his task force’s efforts involved helping voters find the correct polling place or correcting election judges who are mishandling their role — for example, in Illinois, asking people to show a state ID, Paley said. Despite the calls by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and others to monitor the polls for fear of what they have called a “rigged” election, Paley said he does not expect much of a difference in voters’ experiences this year.
“Obviously, this is an unusual election year and I would say that if I were guessing, I’d guess that I’ll be a little busier than I may have been in 2012 or 2008,” Paley said. “But no, we’re not particularly worried about a specific issue or a specific location or anything else.”
In Atlanta, Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton is hosting Election Protection’s statewide hotline, as it has done since the initiative launched for the 2000 election, said patent litigation associate Jonathan Olinger, who is leading the firm’s effort with partner Michael Tyler. On Tuesday the hotline will open at 6:15 a.m. and run until 8:30 p.m.
There will be 92 volunteers on Election Day from Atlanta’s largest firms—King & Spalding, Alston & Bird, Troutman Sanders, Sutherland Asbill & Brennan—as well as other big firms including Paul Hastings, Duane Morris, Seyfarth Shaw and Carlton Fields Jorden Burt, said Olinger. Made up of lawyers, law students, paralegals and other legal professionals, the volunteers have been trained on questions specific to Georgia voter law, Olinger said. Election Protection has roughly another 100 trained volunteers on the ground in metro-Atlanta as well as in Henry, Bibb and Chatham counties.
The Atlanta call center received more than 2,000 calls in 2012, and Olinger said hotline volunteers are ready for questions from voters struggling to vote as well as any electioneering or voter intimidation issues.
“We are certainly prepared for more issues than usual and we’ve communicated with the Georgia Secretary of State about that,” he said.
In 2016, Olinger said, some of the top issues will likely stem from Georgia’s requirement that voters present photo ID at the polls and the so-called “exact match” registration requirement. The “exact match” provision prevents a voter registration application from being processed if the information, such as name and address, don’t exactly match — down to the last space and hyphen — information in state databases for drivers licenses, Social Security and the like.
The Lawyers’ Committee and other voting rights groups sued the Georgia Secretary of State over the “exact match” policy in September, submitting research showing the policy disproportionately affects minority voters because, for example, their names may have less common spellings. State officials have agreed to provisionally process the registration forms, although the litigation continues.
Jennifer Scullion, a Proskauer Rose partner and a trustee of the Lawyers’ Committee, said her firm will have some 150 volunteers answering phones Monday and Tuesday, including firm lawyers and paralegals, attorneys and staff from client organizations and other attorney volunteers. The firm is volunteering to take calls from Ohio, Arkansas, South Carolina and Tennessee.
Scullion said volunteers will have gone through substantial training to answer difficult questions. “A lot of it is knowing what the law is, but also using common sense to solve problems on a real time basis,” she said.
The Election Protection hotline took about 125,000 calls during the last general election in 2012, including 1,000 that Proskauer answered, said Scullion. This year, the Proskauer lawyer said she expected more calls and longer lines at the polls due to increased attention to the election.
Scullion anticipates there may be more issues this year involving voters not being able to find their names at polling stations, especially in Ohio, after the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in September that the state engaged in unlawful purging of voter names. If someone can’t find their name at the polling station, he or she will likely be advised to file a provisional ballot, she said.
Based on election rhetoric, Scullion said, she is also not counting out hearing about aggressive poll monitoring and concerns over voter intimidation.
“We are thinking about that, and we are also paying attention to concerns over free speech rights,” she said.