Amid worries that voting suppression efforts have intensified in the run-up to Tuesday’s midterm elections, the national Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law is counting on nearly 100 large law firms to ensure that citizens succeed at making their voices heard at the ballot box.
Big Law attorneys will be spreading out across the country to serve as poll monitors and will be manning hotline call centers to respond to concerns about ballot access. And, in the event of any “eleventh hour mischief,” some are prepared to initiate litigation in partnership with the organization’s staff attorneys, said president and executive director Kristen Clarke.
“In all of the areas of the work that we do, it is perhaps here where we see corporate law firms really standing up and offering their resources to help fight back,” Clarke added. “It speaks to how central the right to vote is in our democracy.”
The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law dates back to 1963, when President John F. Kennedy, Vice President Lyndon Johnson and Attorney General Robert Kennedy summoned nearly 250 private attorneys to the White House to support the civil rights fight. While the group’s election protection program has been in place for 18 years, the significance of the effort has increased in recent years.
That owes to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, which gutted provisions of the 1965 Voting Right Act that required certain states and localities to obtain federal pre-clearance before changing their voting laws and practices. Since then, Clarke says, discriminatory pressures on voting have moved forward at an “unrelenting pace.”
Those developments have prompted lawsuits around the country, pertaining both to states previously covered by the law’s pre-clearance mandate and to new states. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, litigation regarding voting restrictions is currently unfolding in 17 states.
According to Clarke, in the current climate, more firms are committing pro bono resources to the issue. One notable example is in stepping up to host call centers. The organization largely hosts the national 866-OUR-VOTE hotline out of its own office, but Monday it moved to 18 sites around the country.
Simpson Thacher & Bartlett expects over 230 volunteers at its call center in New York, according to partner John Ericson. Other call center hosts include Drinker Biddle & Reath in Washington, D.C., Reed Smith in Los Angeles and Kirkland & Ellis in Chicago, San Francisco and New York.
Dorsey & Whitney, which has been involved in the election protection project for over a decade, hosts a call center in Minneapolis that serves voters from Minnesota as well as Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri, North Dakota and South Dakota, according to a spokeswoman for the firm. “This group’s skill and dedication to protecting the franchise is inspiring,” partner Jonathan Van Horn said in a statement. “A few years ago, I assisted a first-time voter over several hours and several phone calls. His grandmother later sent me note that says it all: ‘Hallelujah, he was finally allowed to cast his vote.’”
Other firms are getting their attorneys out of the office. Venable is sending a dozen lawyers from around the country to Ohio to serve as nonpartisan poll monitors in conjunction with the committee.
“This is the least we can do to insure that all eligible voters are allowed to vote if they make the effort to go to their polling stations,” partner William Coston said in a statement. “Lawyers have a special duty and privilege to help voters exercise their rights to pick their leaders.”
Steptoe & Johnson LLP, meanwhile, announced it will be providing all employees with two hours of paid leave to vote on Tuesday, in conjunction with non-partisan efforts at ElectionDay.org and MakeTimetoVote.org. As of Monday, it was the sole law firm listed by either initiative as taking part.