On Wednesday, October 10, eight lawyers from five different law firms in northern Virginia assembled in a DLA Piper conference room here for voter protection training from the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. It was the first of fifteen training sessions before election day in this crucial battleground state.
The Election Protection coalition plans to recruit 10,000 volunteers to assist at the polls during early voting and on election day in twenty states, particularly in high-turnout minority voting areas and historically disenfranchised communities. It will staff thirty-two call centers in English and Spanish through its 866-Our-Vote hotline. This conference room will be one of them.
The Election Protection coalition, spearheaded by the Lawyers’ Committee and including groups like the NAACP and Common Cause, was launched after the 2000 election fiasco in Florida. “A lot of folks in the voting rights and civil rights community realized you couldn’t wait until election day to solve issues,” says Eric Marshall, co-leader of Election Protection.
This election will be the coalition’s largest and most important effort yet, as the group tries to mitigate the chaos caused by voter suppression laws passed in more than a dozen states since the 2010 election. “The biggest legacy of this campaign of restrictive voting laws is the potential for confusion,” says Marshall. “Voter education is more important now than it has been in a number of years.”
Virginia is one of thirteen states with a new restrictive voting law on the books. Earlier this year, the state tightened an existing voter ID law that requires identification to cast a ballot (but not necessarily photo ID), such as a voter registration card, utility bill or—this being the South—a handgun permit. The updated law expands the list of acceptable IDs but cracks down on Virginians who show up without one.
In the past, a Virginia voter lacking ID could sign an affidavit attesting to his or her identity and cast a regular ballot. Now that voter must cast a provisional ballot, which will count only if the voter presents proof of ID to the board of elections by noon on the Friday after election day. This change could disenfranchise the 15,000 Virginians who cast a ballot without ID in 2008— which could affect the outcome in one of the nation’s most hotly contested swing states. The proliferation of provisional ballots could also delay the election results. “Can you imagine the presidential election not being called until Friday because of some hang-up in Virginia?” asks Tram Nguyen, associate director of Virginia New Majority, a progressive advocacy group.
“I can pretty much guarantee on the morning of election day we’re going to have numerous poll workers in Virginia giving out the wrong information on identification,” says Dara Lindenbaum, an associate counsel for the Lawyers’ Committee. The average American poll worker is 72, often receives minimal training and is not always up to speed on last-minute election law changes. Lindenbaum was in Hampton Roads on election day 2008, where voters encountered four-hour lines because of broken voting machines and record turnout.
Justin Levitt, an elections expert at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, likens voter protection workers to a “mediator in a landlord-tenant dispute,” bridging the divide between election administrators and voters. They provide “direct client service,” he says. “The number-one call to 866-Our-Vote is, Where’s my polling place? The number-two call is, Am I registered? The number-three call is, Am I following the law?”