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 Reed Smith Century City, Calif., 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 at (866) OUR-VOTE. Election Protection will also have lawyers on the ground at a number of polling sites.
Cooley said 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 will host call centers in its Washington and Los Angeles offices. The firm’s Pittsburgh and Falls Church, Va., offices, meanwhile, will host what Cooley calls “command centers” to relay any legal issues that crop up at polling places or elsewhere to election officials or the media, as necessary. Cooley expects up to 125 volunteers from his firm in total, with attorneys and paralegals in other Reed Smith offices participating in other cities.
All told, Election Protection expects 2,000 volunteers at 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, established by the lawyers’ committee and such other groups as Common Cause following the 2000 election’s Florida recount and the ensuing legal battles.
Anderson said 16 large law firms are on board to host call centers in various U.S. cities this year, with additional firms represented through their attorneys. Bingham McCutchen, for example, will have people working the phones in its Washington 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 will play host to phone banks in their New York offices. So will 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 will include Dorsey & Whitney in Minneapolis; Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton in Atlanta; ; and Munger, Tolles & Olson in Los Angeles.
Kirkland litigation partner Adam Humann said 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 Iowa, Kansas, New York, North Dakota and Wisconsin.
Reed Smith has hosted call centers since 2004, and Cooley said the questions run the gamut from voters asking what types of identification they need to show to more serious claims of voter intimidation. He said 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 said many of the volunteering lawyers receive pro bono credit from their firms for participating, which may have added a draw for attorneys. “It’s something that [Reed Smith] gives full pro bono credit for, so it’s a win-win,” Cooley said, adding that this likely would 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.”
Tom Huddleston is a staff reporter for American Lawyer. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.