WASHINGTON — Onika Williams sat at her dining room table in Arlington, Virginia, flipped open her laptop and began her shift fielding calls from voters across the country.
Some wanted to know where they could go to vote early. Others called into the national hotline to ask how they could track their mail-ballot.
“Voters are engaged and they want to make sure their votes count,’’ said Williams, a 37-year-old lawyer volunteering with Election Protection, a nonpartisan coalition that provides a national hotline for voters.
Williams is among nearly 24,000 lawyers volunteering to help voters across the country navigate changes in what has become an unprecedented election cycle plagued by confusion and problems. With the novel coronvirus pandemic, officials have scrambled to overhaul the way voters cast ballots, leaving some frustrated and worried whether their vote will count.
Organizers of Election Protection, a national coalition of civil rights and voting rights groups, said the number of volunteers has quadrupled since the 2016 presidential election and the 2018 midterm elections. They’re bracing for even more calls as Election Day nears and in the days and weeks following.
“The volume of litigation and intensity of the phone calls makes clear that the 2020 election is a season like none other in recent times,’’ said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, one of the groups leading the effort.
The hotline has received more than 100,000 calls since July, averaging about 7,000 a day, organizers said. At this point in 2016, the group had fielded 21,000 calls since January of that year.
Organizers are particularly expecting a flood of calls from states like Florida and Texas, where there have been several election law changes, and from battleground states like Pennsylvania and Ohio.
“The onset of COVID-19 has posed really unprecedented challenges to voters all across the country,’’ said Harlene Katzman, pro bono counsel/director at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP in New York, which is working with Election Protection.
She said those challenges include voters unsure about going to the polls for fear of exposure to the virus.
Several Election Protection groups have filed lawsuits challenging election changes and responses. Last week, after voters called the hotline, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law sued Virginia to extend its voter registration deadline by 48 hours after a fiber optic cable was accidentally cut and crashed the system.
New laws stirring anxiety
The Election Protection hotline (866-OUR-VOTE) is available all year, but calls have ramped up in recent weeks as millions started casting ballots early in some states.
Some complained they didn’t get their mail-in ballot. Others were confused about election changes. Clarke said there has been confusion in states like Texas and Tennessee, where she said officials have put restrictions on who has access to vote by mail.
“Many of them are pandemic-driven concerns that are coming to the fore,’’ she said.
Clarke noted a call from a voter in quarantine because of COVID-19 who hadn’t received a ballot and wanted to know what to do. She said others have asked whether their ballots will be delivered on time with delays in postal service while others question whether mail-in ballots are secure.
“It is hard for people to figure out how to vote in a lot of different places because the laws and procedures that are governing the way voting works are complicated,’’ said Katzman. “The most important role of the election protection volunteer is to figure out what the voter's problem is.”
With the pandemic, many voters don’t have access to traditional support systems, including churches and civic organizations, to get reliable information, said Barbara Arnwine, president and founder of Transformative Justice Coalition, a racial justice and voting rights advocacy group.
“It's an environment in which too many voters find themselves stranded,’’ she said.
Another problem, said Arnwine, is the pervasiveness of voter suppression tactics.
In the last 10 years, nearly half the states have adopted measures that make it harder to vote, including requiring voter ID and limiting early voting, according to the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice in New York. The changes disproportionately impact voters of color, the center found earlier this year. The center said 25% of voting-age Black Americans don't have government-issued ID compared to 8% of white Americans.
“In the past, we were able to tell you, ‘This state is going to be ground zero. That state is going to be ground zero,’’ Arnwine said. "Now, when I talk to you about ground zero, I've got to pull out a list of states.’’
Common Cause Pennsylvania, a nonpartisan watchdog group and Election Protection partner, is hearing from voters who want reassurance they’re doing everything right.
“We are seeing such incredible voter anxiety in Pennsylvania that is really a result of a lot of the new laws,’’ said Suzanne Almeida, the group's interim executive director.
Almeida pointed to various election changes, including vote-by-mail available to eligible voters for the first time in some states, satellite election offices and deadline extensions.
“All of which is in the midst of probably the most fraught election – at least of my lifetime,’’ she said.
'We have a clarion call'
Election Protection has gone mostly virtual this year because of the pandemic, with most lawyers like Williams working from their homes or other spaces. In the past, scores of lawyers fielded calls from a law office turned command center in Washington, D.C.
The virtual conditions have meant more lawyers can volunteer because they don’t have to travel to call centers to work hours-long shifts, recruiters said.
More than 7,000 members of the National Bar Association, a group of mostly African American lawyers, are among those joining the Election Protection effort. Last week, the volunteers were trained on election rules in 27 states.
Many of the states have barriers to voting that particularly hurt communities of color, said CK Hoffler, the association president.
“We just think we have a clarion call,’’ she said. “We’re not playing. We’re serious about this. It’s protecting the right to vote, not partisan politics … Black folks died so that we can vote.“
Beyond answering calls, some partners are also providing masks, gloves, shields and sanitizers to voters.
“We want them to vote knowing that they are as safe as they can be,” said Hoffler.
Williams, chair of the Young Lawyers Division of the National Bar Association, will spend upcoming days helping volunteers answer calls from voters in Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
“We have been issued a call to action,'' said Williams.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Voter suppression concerns spur lawyers giving free legal advice