Hotline Braces for Voters' Questions, Complaints on Election Day

Election Protection helps ensure that voters are able to cast a ballot

An active military member called the Election Protection hotline in Washington, D.C., because a poll worker said he could not vote.

The service member, who is from Arizona but is stationed in Texas, was improperly told he couldn't cast an absentee ballot because he’s out of state. Attorneys volunteering with the hotline explained to the poll worker that the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act grants the service member the right to fill out an absentee ballot in elections for federal offices.

The call was among hundreds fielded on Monday by volunteers at Election Protection, the nation’s largest nonpartisan coalition of more than 100 organizations, led by the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Election Protection's goal to help ensure that voters are able to cast a ballot. The group is active year round, including for the primaries and early voting, but the bulk of calls come on Election Day.

“The volume of call has been fairly intense,” said Kristen Clarke, the Lawyers’ Committee president and executive director. She added that the Election Protection National Command Center and the 12 national and 11 local call centers across the U.S. were bracing for a huge number of calls on Election Day, higher than in 2012. That year, the Election Protection hotline answered 37,000 calls the day before Election Day and 90,000 calls on Election Day from voters in 50 states and D.C., according to the Lawyers’ Committee.

As of 8 a.m. on Tuesday, the main voting issues reported to Election Protection were registration problems, long lines, late poll openings in New York, and machine problems in Virginia.

On Monday, Election Protection received calls from people reporting voter intimidation in Broward County, Florida. Voters said a group was assembled near the Hollywood Branch Library and were acting aggressive toward voters going inside to cast their ballots. One woman said she was inside her car when a group approached and touched her vehicle. She told hotline volunteers she drove away because she felt she could not freely cast her ballot. Clarke said Election Protection contacted local election officials but it was not immediately clear who the group was. Clarke said every complaint of potential voter intimidation raises the possibility that it could impact the rights of many voters.

“We want to ensure that voters are able to cast their ballot free from discrimination and harassment and we most especially want to ensure that some of the calls that have been made for law enforcement to mobilize and for untrained individuals to be on the lookout for problems on election day does not translate into widespread suppression and harassment of voters,” Clarke said. “We want to ensure that all voters are able to participate this election cycle.”

Another issue reported in Florida Monday was voters receiving their absentee ballots late. Voters called the hotline concerned that their vote won’t be counted, according to Clarke.

Over the weekend, voters in Lake County, Indiana, contacted Election Protection about long lines at polling places and officials trying to block people standing in line from voting after the polling site closed.

"Anyone standing in a long line should be allowed to vote if they are in that line at the time the polls close," Clarke explained.

She said Election Protection intervened successfully on Indiana voters’ behalf but long lines have been reported at other locations through the U.S., including in Georgia and North Carolina due to counties cutting down on polling sites.

Clarke added that this is the first presidential election in more than 40 years without the full protection of the Voting Rights Act with many states passing laws and undertaking other efforts to make voting more difficult.

In Texas, there have been reports of confusion over the state’s voter ID law. A federal appeals court loosened ID rules in July, allowing voters to present alternative documentation such as a voter registration certificate or a utility bill and sign a document affirming a reasonable difficulty in obtaining a photo ID. But voters reported to their early voting sites in Texas only to find outdated information.

Adam Laughton, an associate at Seyfarth Shaw law firm who serves as a call center captain in Houston, Texas, said incorrect printed instructions about the voter ID law were posted in polling places in San Antonio and the hotline has been fielding calls from confused voters and poll workers across the state.

"Poll workers just don’t have the grasp on the final points of the law and how it’s changed or the workaround the court put in place," he said.

Election Protection has ramped up with 1,000 more volunteers this election cycle, while the federal government has cut back on its team of election monitors. As the early voting period came to a close the Election Protection Hotline received more than 75,000 calls during the 2016 election cycle.

The Justice Department announced Monday it will send more than 500 staffers to 28 states on Election Day to monitor the polls, a 35 percent reduction from the number four years ago.

The personnel will be dispatched to 67 jurisdictions to watch for potential civil rights violations, such as discrimination on the basis of race, religion or gender.

Election Protection is a resource for voters in places that may not be covered by DOJ or other monitors. Clarke said the Election Protection National Command Center handles the bulk of calls through the election, and national and local call centers pitch in the day before and on Election Day. 

At one of six national call centers in New York City on Monday, attorney Sara Zablotney was fielding questions from voters in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin who wanted to know what would satisfy voter identification requirements in their state and where their polling places are. Two hours into her morning shift, Zablotney was gearing up for what was expected to be a barrage of voters’ calls and concerns on Election Day.

She was among a group of 30 volunteers working in four shifts at the call center, which was managed by Kirkland & Ellis law firm inside a midtown Manhattan high rise. The call center will have 160 attorneys working in four shifts, beginning at 6:30 a.m. ET. The center is expected to answer thousands of calls by the time it closes at 9:30 p.m. ET.

“It’s a really important project. I think the privilege that we have to be able to vote is a very important thing,” said Zablotney, a partner at Kirkland & Ellis who was volunteering with the hotline for the first time. “So helping people understand when and how to vote is a great service that we can provide.”

Election Protection can be reached at 866-OUR-VOTE (English only), 888-VE-Y-VOTA (English/Spanish) and 888-API-VOTE (English, Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Bengali, Hindi, Urdu and Tagalog).

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