Reston, Virginia

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?”

In addition to voter suppression laws, this year Election Protection organizers will face another threat: the Tea Party group True the Vote and its local affiliates, which claim to be recruiting a million “poll watchers” to challenge voters they believe are ineligible to vote. In practice, that’s going to mean a lot of conservative white activists stationed outside the polls in heavily Democratic minority neighborhoods, a sure-fire recipe for voter intimidation and harassment. That dynamic is especially troubling in a state like Virginia, where minorities make up 30 percent of the electorate and three out of four new residents are people of color.

Challenger laws date back to the 1870s in states like Virginia, when segregationists challenged the right to cast a ballot of newly emancipated African-Americans. They are still on the books in at least eight battleground states. “Of the 39 states that allow polling place challenges, only 15 require poll challengers to provide some documentation to support their claim that the challenged voter is ineligible,” reports the Brennan Center for Justice. In Florida, for example, any challenged voter must cast a provisional ballot (in 2008, 2.1 million provisional ballots were cast nationally; 69 percent were counted). In Virginia, the challenge must be in writing, and challenged voters may cast a regular ballot if they sign an affidavit affirming their identity.

Outside groups are not allowed in polling places, but representatives of the parties are, so True the Vote is urging its members to become GOP poll watchers, which could increase the likelihood of voter challenges. Often these challenges are based on little more than racial profiling. Videos have recently surfaced of True the Vote activists giving inaccurate training to prospective poll workers falsely claiming, in states like New Mexico, for example, that voters must show ID. “They’re enforcing the law of their gut rather than the law on the books,” says Levitt. “That’s what vigilante squads do, and their hit rates are pretty bad.”

Earlier this year, the Virginia Voters Alliance, a True the Vote affiliate, held a “stop the voter fraud summit” in Fairfax for several hundred conservative activists. “There is a tsunami of voter fraud coming to your town,” said featured speaker Bob Cooley, a self-described “former ‘Mob’ insider, turned FED informant.” Despite the hyperbole, voter fraud is not much of a problem nationally or in Virginia. In 2008, the Virginia state police charged fewer than forty people with voter fraud—most of them felons who, mistakenly, registered to vote or cast ballots— out of nearly 4 million votes cast.

The Election Protection coalition has been preparing for months to deal with voter suppression laws and vigilante groups. “We’ve had more calls to our hotline this year than ever before,” says Marshall. The Obama campaign is also recruiting thousands of legal volunteers to staff the polls, and has more than thirty paid staffers working on voter protection in a dozen battleground states. “The right to vote is fundamental,” says Adam Fetcher, deputy national press secretary for the Obama campaign.

The Voting Rights Watch 2012 blog has assiduously followed the struggle for universal suffrage across the country in this election season. The latest posting is the video “Just How Hard Is it for a Navajo Elder to Get Voter ID?” See also “Democracy in ‘Suspense’: Why Arizona’s Native Voters Are in Peril,” by Aura Bogado.