By Paria Kooklan.
As the political parties get ready for this November’s midterm elections, voting rights advocates are getting ready as well. As in the past few elections, a veritable army of legal volunteers will be deployed to make sure that every eligible voter is afforded the right to cast his or her ballot. Among these volunteers are thousands of law students from schools across the country.
“It’s not exactly law practice, but it’s advocacy experience,” says Jonathan Brater, a 3L at the University of Michigan Law School, describing the role of a volunteer poll watcher. “And it’s an opportunity to make a difference.”
Brater helps lead the Michigan Election Law Project (MELP), which organizes law students to work as poll observers. In the past few election cycles, the group has assisted voters who were turned away from the polls due to Michigan’s photo ID requirements.
“We try to help the voters and the poll workers navigate the rules,” Brater says. “For instance, if you don’t have a photo ID, you can sign an affidavit instead. So you can still vote. But most people don’t know that.”
This year, the group is also working with Ann Arbor City Clerk’s Office to recruit law students to work at the polls––not as observers, but as official poll workers. Brater explains that law students make good poll workers because they are better able to understand the complex web of federal, state, and local laws and regulations that govern our elections.
“Plus, they’re used to working 16-hour days,” he added.
Election Protection coalition
MELP isn’t the only student group working on the 2010 election. Similar efforts are under way at schools across the country, including Georgetown, NYU, Columbia, USC, Stanford, the University of Arizona, the University of Virginia, and others.
Most of the groups coordinate their work through Election Protection, a nonpartisan coalition of more than 100 legal and community organizations led by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. The coalition, whose members include the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the American Bar Association, was formed in the wake of the disputed presidential election of 2000. Its goal, as stated on its website, is “to ensure that all voters have an equal opportunity to participate in the political process.”
The centerpiece of the coalition’s program is a national voter hotline (866-OUR-VOTE) that answers questions about such issues as registration, early voting, and polling place locations––and provides advice and assistance to voters who have been turned away at the polls. Hotline call centers are located throughout the country, mostly at local law firms, and begin operating several months in advance of Election Day.
The coalition also deploys thousands of poll watchers in the field, disseminates information about the voting process and voting rights, collaborates with election officials to eliminate barriers to voting, files lawsuits to challenge laws and procedures it deems unfair, publishes reports on problems that voters encounter, and pushes for state and federal reforms that make it easier for citizens to vote.
Staffing these efforts is a nationwide network of lawyers, paralegals, and law students.
“Law students are an incredibly important part of our program,” says Eric Marshall, manager of Legal Mobilization at the Lawyers’ Committee.
According to Marshall, most of the law students recruited by the coalition act as Election Day volunteers, staffing the hotline, monitoring polling places, and speaking to poll workers when problems arise. Some also perform legal research, or work with supervising lawyers to determine appropriate responses to voting rights violations.
“We really rely on them,” Marshall says. “They are often our most passionate volunteers.”
If you have any questions about the voting process—from registering to vote, to finding your polling place, to reporting problems with the election system—visit www.866ourvote.org.
The 2008 election
In 2008, the coalition mounted the largest election protection effort in history, deploying more than 10,000 volunteers to answer approximately 200,000 phone calls and assist hundreds of thousands more voters on the ground.
The record number of volunteers recruited was attributable, in large part, to the excitement surrounding the election, particularly among young people. But another factor may have been the anxiety many Americans felt about a potential of Florida’s 2000 debacle, or of the controversy that occurred in Ohio in 2004. In the months leading up to the election, a number of news outlets reported that counties across the nation were unprepared for the record turnout that was anticipated, while others ran stories about the unreliability of electronic voting machines.
Meanwhile, legal battles broke out in a number of states over such issues as voter registration and identification laws, rules for early and absentee voting, and the practice of “purging” certain voters—such as those flagged in state databases as having prior felony convictions—from the rolls.
A Gallup poll taken on the eve of the election showed that more than a third of Americans believed that “eligible voters not being allowed to cast a vote will be a major problem across the country.” While even more Americans were worried about ineligible voters casting ballots (a side effect of the ACORN voter registration scandal), the number of citizens concerned about voter suppression was significant.
It was in this context that law student organizations across the country were able to recruit record numbers of volunteers for their voter protection efforts.
At Stanford Law School, the student-run Voting Rights Project (VRP) worked to register voters, focusing their efforts on East Palo Alto, California, which has a high proportion of low-income residents. They also performed research on the issue of felon disenfranchisement. At the University of Southern California, a group of 50 students organized to help staff the national voter hotline’s Los Angeles call center. At the University of Arizona, students created a local “command center” and trained 90 of their classmates to act as poll watchers. Similarly, students at Columbia trained approximately 100 of their peers and deployed them to polling places throughout New York.
The political parties also used legal volunteers to work as poll watchers and assist with litigation where necessary, recruiting from among law school Democratic and Republican clubs, as well as the usual pool of law firm partners and associates.
In the end, the election went relatively smoothly. But the Lawyers’ Committee’s Marshall says there’s still more work to be done.
“It’s an interesting time in voting rights,” Marshall says. “With the election in 2008 not being close, there’s this narrative that everything went well. People don’t focus on the problems. But there are still some big problems there. We haven’t had the structural reforms necessary to make our voting system really accessible.”
The biggest obstacle to voter participation in elections, Marshall explained, is the antiquated voter registration system. Developed in the 1800s by the Whig party, the registration system was purposefully designed to discourage Italian, Irish, and Eastern European immigrants from voting.
“People forget this, but it’s still one of the biggest barriers for voters,” Marshall says. “I’m hoping we go to a system of automatic registration soon.”
In the meantime, the coalition is planning another large-scale effort for fall 2010. As in previous years, special attention will be paid to states like Florida and Ohio, which have a history of voting problems. Other hot spots include New York, which recently started using new voting machines; Tennessee, which enacted a strict new voter identification law; and Georgia, where the Lawyers’ Committee and other civil rights groups are involved in litigation over the state’s challenge to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
As in 2008, law students are actively involved, comprising a significant part of the coalition’s volunteer base. Many are building on their 2008 work to develop creative programs, often focused on historically disenfranchised minorities or systemic voting issues.
For instance, like MELP, the Election Law Society (ELS), and the Election Law Program at William & Mary Law School in Virginia are working to recruit young people as poll workers. ELS members will recruit and train at least 240 undergraduate students from six local colleges to act as poll workers.
Meanwhile, Stanford’s VRP plans to deploy volunteers to Bay Area polling places with high levels of Asian-language minority voters, planning not only to document and help resolve any problems, but also to conduct a survey of the overall election experience of language-minority voters. VRP has also partnered with national voting rights organizations to conduct legal and policy research on voter protection issues as they arise at the state and local levels in advance of the November election. After the election, the group plans to continue providing legal research on related issues, including the re-enfranchisement of voters with past felony convictions.
“I think it’s going to be a great mix of providing both direct legal services to voters and research assistance to legal advocates—two things that law students are uniquely equipped to provide,” said VRP chair Alex Tischenko. “And we hope to involve a significant proportion of our classmates.”
An even more ambitious project is under way at Seattle University School of Law. The National Voting Rights Advocacy Initiative, established in anticipation of the 2011 redistriction of congressional and other legislative districts, will serve as a national resource center for advocates seeking to eliminate election methods that have a discriminatory effect on minority voting strength. The project, which is led by prominent Latino civil rights lawyer Joaquin Avila, will provide access to source material relating to the Voting Rights Act, such as federal administrative decisions and legislative hearing transcripts. It will also create a process for the documentation of voting rights abuses. But, perhaps most importantly, it will provide law students with opportunities to work with people in the field on a variety of projects and tasks.
For example, students will be able to work on proposed legislation affecting the right to vote at the federal and state levels.
According to the students involved with election protection activities, such opportunities are extremely valuable.
Brater, Tischenko, and others say their volunteer work affords them the opportunity to put their classroom learning into context. They also like being able to use their legal knowledge and skills to make a direct impact on something important.
“It’s a good feeling, participating in our democracy this way,” Brater says. “It’s a great thing for every law student to do.”
WANT TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE?
Election Protection is currently recruiting law students to serve as hotline call center volunteers and participate in legal field deployments to ensure the process is running properly. Interested students can send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Vol. 39 No. 2
Paria Kooklan (email@example.com) is a graduate of Loyola Law School. After law school, she worked as a staff writer for the Los Angeles Daily Journal, and later as a homelessness policy analyst for the City and County of Los Angeles.