More than 300 Chicago legal professionals volunteered on Election Day today, fielding phone calls from troubled voters and roaming between different polling locations to oversee local polls.
The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the national nonpartisan voter protection coalition Election Protection sponsored the effort as dozens of attorneys, paralegals and law students answered almost nonstop calls in a conference room at DLA Piper LLP.
As of 10:05 a.m., 866-OUR-VOTE had received more than 300 calls from voters in the Chicago area and Northwest Indiana. Ryan Cortazar, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law legal fellow, said the call center was fielding about 100 calls an hour.
A lot of those hotline calls were voters complaining their polling places were understaffed, Cortazar said. Some reported precincts that were handing out provisional ballots, which are only designed to be used when a particular voter’s eligibility is in question.
Voters also reported equipment malfunctions. Others reported administrative errors, like an Indiana caller’s name not showing up as a registered voter.
He said registration issues are not as much of an issue in Illinois where same-day registration is allowed — though a challenge brought by a conservative group to that law remains pending before the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and could affect such an option in future elections.
“There are so many things that can go wrong from the time that a voter tries to register to vote to the time that they cast their ballot,” Cortazar said. “There can be technological issues, there can be just human error in the administration of the voter rolls, there can be intimidation at the polling place, there can be language problems, problems with disabilities.”
Cortazar said volunteer legal professionals can make sure voters’ complaints to county or city election administrators are phrased in a way that they can get immediate service.
He said there were many Northwestern Pritzker School of Law student volunteers, as classes had been canceled for Election Day to encourage students to volunteer, and many volunteers from Kirkland & Ellis LLP.
In fact, Kirkland & Ellis’ 56 lawyers and five other legal professionals made up about a quarter of all the project’s volunteers.
Michael D. Paley, a partner at Kirkland & Ellis, said he had been volunteering on election days since 2008. This election season, he was one of six field captains. He is overseeing about 30 volunteers roaming polling places in Lake and Will Counties.
He arrived at 5:30 a.m., 30 minutes before polls opened and will keep taking calls on his cellphone with his e-mail open on his laptop until at least 7:30 p.m., 30 minutes after polls close.
Paley and other field captains said the phones were busier this year than in years past. Part of that may be because they said there were more volunteers out in the field but the same number of field captains and part of that may be because of new voting machines.
“The only goal of our organization is to make sure that anyone who is entitled to vote gets to vote,” he said. “We don’t care who you vote for. Just if they’re allowed to vote, we want to make sure they get the opportunity to do it.”
Cortazar said the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee also coordinates legal professional volunteers for local elections, including the Chicago municipal election in April 2018.