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.
With the presidential race too close to call and candidates scrambling for every vote, that will be a particularly important this year.
Proskauer Rose’s New York office will host a phone bank for calls coming from battleground state Ohio, as it did in previous election cycles, said Jennifer Scullion, a New York partner. Proskauer also plans to have a few attorneys on the ground in Columbus on Election Day for issues that require a broader response, she said.
“It’s fair to say we have concerns based on our observations of past elections in Ohio,” she said. “In particular, we’re concerned about voter confusion because Ohio has had a lot of rule changes.”
With presidential campaigns focusing on Ohio and possible confusion over the rule changes, Scullian said she expects more than than the 1,000 phone calls the firm received in past elections.
The Proskauer attorneys will be part of Election Protection, a nonpartisan initiative backed by a coalition of legal and civil rights groups that has enlisted 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.
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 [Nov. 5]and the day of Election Day [Nov. 6],” said California-based Reed Smith partner Miles Cooley, who is coordinating the efforts of the firm’s 125 volunteers around the country.
Cooley 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.”
Nancy Anderson, director of Legal Mobilization and Pro Bono for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which is administering the hotline, agreed, 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 said.
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 Anderson, 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 said 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, is to 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 and Sullivan & Cromwell is planning to field calls from New York.
Davis Polk & Wardwell is hosting a call center with 60 lines in its New York office, where more than 200 attorneys and law students are volunteering, including some linked to other firms, said senior counsel Daniel Kolb.
Any hotline calls from the five boroughs in New York City will transfer to Davis Polk’s office, Kolb said.
Davis Polk is also managing a field team of attorneys and law students to travel to polling sites to advise and help voters. They are prepared to report on any problems, such as long lines, voting machines not working or polling sites not opening on time.
Kolb predicts he’ll hear questions on how to operate voting machines installed in New York in 2010.
He added, “I assume that we’re probably going to get a lot of questions on whether voter ID needs to be shown because it’s become such a major issue across the country.”
Simpson Thacher & Bartlett’s New York office is answering hotline calls on from six states, said associate Lisa Freeman. The firm experts more than 80 employees to volunteer, including attorneys and paralegals.
Freeman also expects voter identification to be a prominent issue due to new laws across the country.
“We might get call from a voter who is on line where a poll worker is requesting everybody show voter ID, even though that’s not required by state law,” she said.
Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson is operating a phone bank—with a twist: the operation at its lower Manhattan office will be geared toward those who speak Spanish. About 20 to 30 volunteers will answer calls from the East Coast, said New York partner Janice Mac Avoy.
“There will be rumors that people will have heard,” she said, such as whether a voter must bring a government-issued identification or proof of address. “The volunteers will be trained to answer those questions.”
Once attorneys volunteer to participate, hosting firms collaborate with Election Protection on training. “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,” said Reed Smith’s Cooley.
Anderson said 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 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 New York, Wisconsin, Iowa, North Dakota and Kansas.
Anderson said that many of the volunteering lawyers receive pro bono credit from their firms, 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 said, 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 said. “But, the reality of the situation is that . . . lawyers can play a really valuable civic role.”
@|Tom Huddleston, Jr. is a reporter for The Am Law Daily, an affiliate of the Law Journal. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Law Journal reporter Christine Simmons can be contacted at email@example.com.