How Big Law Volunteers Are Protecting Voting Rights in the 2020 Presidential Election: An Interview with Harold E. Franklin, Jr.

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How Big Law Volunteers Are Protecting Voting Rights in the 2020 Presidential Election: An Interview with Harold E. Franklin, Jr., Regional Vice Chair of Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the Georgia Election Protection Legal Committee

During this historic election, lawyers nationwide are working around the clock to protect our most precious right, our right to vote.

In this episode of On Record PR, guest host Caitlan McCafferty goes on record with Harold Franklin. Harold is a partner at King & Spalding, an international law firm with more than 1,200 lawyers in 22 offices globally. As a partner in the firm’s nationally ranked Product Liability practice, Harold’s national and cross-industry litigation and trial practice focuses on complex and high-stakes individual and mass-tort product liability litigation in the automotive, life sciences, and consumer products industries. He represents foreign and domestic corporations in “bet-the-company” litigation and is a member of the Product Liability Advisory Council (PLAC), which is comprised of the world’s leading product manufacturers and the nation’s top product liability defense counsel. Harold serves as King & Spalding’s Diversity Chair. In this role, he leads the firm’s diversity and inclusion programming and initiatives.

A recognized civic leader, Harold is engaged heavily in pro bono and community service and has been throughout his career playing an important role in protecting civil liberties and providing access to justice. Serving on numerous national and local boards, he is currently Regional Vice Chair of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the Georgia Election Protection legal committee.

This episode was recorded on the morning of Friday, November 6th, three days following the United States 2020 presidential election. At the time of the interview, votes were still being counted in Georgia, Nevada, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania. Harold is among thousands of lawyers volunteering to serve as a crucial line of defense to safeguard voting rights throughout the United States.

Caitlan McCafferty: To frame the state of things, we’re currently waiting for the final results of Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, where I’m based and Georgia, where you’re based. I’m grateful to you for taking the time to join me today. I know your work defending voting rights and election law is incredibly important and time-sensitive as things are changing moment by moment.

Can you tell our listeners a little bit more about the mission for Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and its role in the 2020 election?

Good morning, Caitlan, it’s a pleasure to be here with you and your guests this morning. Election Protection is the nation’s largest nonpartisan voter protection coalition. It’s run by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law, along with many coalition partners across the nation and other organizations, including grassroots organizations. The whole point of the program is about the very fundamental concept that every eligible voter should be able to vote and for their vote to be counted. We work to prevent disenfranchisement and to ensure the integrity of the electoral process. We’ve been doing that for many years now. The Lawyers’ Committee again is the architect of this program, which arose shortly after 2000 with the election there and distrust in the system. Just as a really foundational principle of our democracy, we should all agree that everyone, every citizen who is eligible to vote, who is registered to vote, should be able to vote and for their vote to be counted.

That certainly should not be a controversial topic. It should be something that we all agree upon, but it is an issue that is fraught with a lot of nuances and views about this topic. It’s one that we’re very passionate about. The Lawyers’ Committee was formed in 1963 at the behest of President Kennedy to involve the private bar lawyers in law firms, and in public service to involve them in important civil rights work that was happening back at that time. You have to realize that this was before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and before the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  There was a lot happening in the country. The organization convened lawyers across the country to become involved through pro bono service in this very important work for our democracy. That’s how it came to be.

As of this morning, what is the Lawyers’ Committee working on and what do you anticipate that it will look like in the days and weeks to come?

Generally, in terms of how we function each election cycle, the program is robust:

  • We have a hotline where lawyers are trained on the state specific law and they answer questions for voters as they call in to the hotline.
  • We have a field program that of course was different this year because of the pandemic and needing to observe those social distancing protocols and CDC protocols to keep everyone safe.
  • We have a litigation team.

Those are the components of the program that we’ve had for many years and they’re working very well together. One of the key aspects of the program that has made it so successful, Caitlan, is the fact that we’ve built relationships with election officials. We work with them closely from the county level. Georgia has 159 counties.

We also work with the secretary of state’s office to ensure that we’re able, as issues arise on election day and during the advanced voting period, to resolve issues for voters in real time, whether that is calling election officials to resolve the issue, or ultimately in some instances it might result in litigation.

We were very busy as you can imagine, on Tuesday, but there was historic turnout during the advanced voting period that was written about a good bit in Georgia. We also had historic turnout in terms of the use of absentee ballots. A lot of technical issues that affected that process had been written about, but since then, we’ve been most recently dealing with assisting voters who have questions about curing their ballots, their absentee ballots, and their provisional ballots. The ballots will not count unless, for example (with the provisional ballots), what is missing from those ballots — the alleged deficiency information — is provided today, Friday [November 6].

There are a lot of questions about that, and we’re assisting voters that way. There are other issues that have been going on in Georgia. There were a good number of polling places where the hours had to be extended on Tuesday as a result of technical failures regarding machines that were used. Those polling hours were extended and voters voted after those time allotments. There are questions about those votes and how they’re going to be treated. As you know, there’ve been ongoing efforts to process and count all the votes. In Georgia, you cannot start counting those absentee ballots until the end of election day. So, with the historic turnout, there is a great deal of work that has been done since the election in order to process and verify those absentee ballots that have been left in drop boxes or that have been mailed.

Caitlan McCafferty: I’ve been watching Georgia closely for the last few days. I saw that there was a flood situation in Fulton County. Is that right?

Harold Franklin: Yes.

Caitlan McCafferty: A water pipe burst. Gwinnett County had some difficulty last night. But it’s the foundation of our democracy that every vote is counted. It’s great work to help voters cure their ballots and to make sure that their voices are heard.

Can you explain a little bit more about why this election is unique for Georgia? I know that there are some differences in Georgia with the runoffs and for the Senate. Could you talk about that a little bit, too?

In terms of what’s unique about Georgia this time, there’s a lot that has happened in recent years regarding elections. We’ve had the exact match system. We’ve had different protocols that have been put in place, many of which have been very controversial because they have disproportionately affected communities of color. I think it’s important that we understand the context of voting rights in this country.  We know that the Voting Rights Act really made the difference in eliminating a lot of the vestiges of discrimination that affected the registration rate and those who participated. There was a lot of intimidation that happened in voter suppression. I had the pleasure of becoming very close with Congressman John Lewis, who certainly was an inspiration and is a dear friend. He continues to inspire us all. Again, we’re nonpartisan, it’s all about preventing and stopping the disenfranchisement from whomever is engaging in that conduct. I think that’s important and we should all agree to coalesce around that core value.

There is a lot that has happened on the Georgia legal landscape. There’s been a lot of litigation. I will say that it’s no secret that there was a tremendous transformational moment in our country in 2013 when the United States Supreme Court struck down the Shelby County v. Holder. In that case, they struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. Caitlan, within less than a day of that decision across the country, Texas and other states implemented a lot of the measures. Whether the issue was   photo ID or something else that was put in place that they couldn’t put in place before without getting approval or preclearance from the government, they implemented it almost immediately. The rationale for those things is to prevent voter fraud. But, if you look at any of the studies, such as the data on in-person voter fraud, it’s fiction. It’s so incredibly rare. It’s a small percentage that is far less than 1%. You’re dealing with the rationale for these measures to be put in place (measures such as providing a photo ID to prevent voter fraud). In my view, that was a solution looking for a problem.  As a result, these measures put in place have been shown to have a vastly disproportionate effect on African Americans, Latinx, Asian-Americans, and communities of color.  That really is what this has been about –helping to protect voters and ensure that they are not disenfranchised through purging and other measures that have been put in place.

To learn more about the details of Shelby County v. Holder, listen to the On Record PR episode with Donita Judge, Associate Executive Director, Center for Constitutional Rights

That’s what the discussion is about when you’re dealing with voting rights. Of course, right now in our nation things have been incredibly divisive with the rhetoric and controversy around actually counting votes. It shouldn’t be controversial, but that’s something around which there’s a lot of concern. There’s a lot of distrust and concern about the postal service. Many things have happened in Georgia that have paved ways to undermine confidence in the system. We have had so many voters who requested absentee ballots, and when they became concerned about the rhetoric, decided to come in and vote anyway, cancelling those ballots; or those who requested ballots and never received them. One of the results of some of the things that happened here in Georgia was that a vendor in Georgia was used in Arizona to help process absentee ballot requests.

There have been a lot of things amidst the pandemic that really complicate how elections are administered. In Georgia, as I’m sure you’ve heard, there are a lot of counties that are still processing and counting those absentee ballots. The process is one that is ongoing. There has been litigation here in Chatham County, which is in Savannah; there was litigation and a lawsuit in which some of those votes were being challenged and the court dismissed that complaint. We had calls from voters who have called the 1-866-OURVOTE hotline number, which is the number for the Lawyers’ Committee that we asked everyone to call about partisan actors who had gone to the scene and were using what many felt to be intimidation.  of the individuals who were there. Those are some of the types of things that have been happening. It’s a very fluid situation here, but it’s my understanding that they’re making progress in processing these votes again to ensure that every vote that was properly cast is counted.

Is there a success story from the last few days that you can share that represents what you hope to achieve through your work for voting rights?

There are a lot of success stories. I think that we were able to resolve so many issues for voters on election day. We had so many more volunteers across the nation than we’ve ever had, but we still get calls from voters who are confused about their polling location — whether because the polling location is not open or it’s delayed in opening due to technical issues. We in Georgia had an issue involving the poll books that are used to check in voters to encode the voter cards. It was county-wide in Spalding County. We heard accounts from other counties as well that they were affected because these poll books were programmed. We were told the night before the election. Those were some of the issues — we were able to contact the relevant election officials to help get some of those issues resolved. As you probably heard, in many of the affected areas, they had to extend polling hours. Certainly, that’s something of a success. Voters were not deprived of the amount of time they should be allotted to cast a vote.  We’ve gotten many calls regarding the absentee ballot process and from people who never got their absentee ballot who requested them. We were able to assist many of them. We stood ready to assist voters who’ve   encountered circumstances that are intimidating to them. We’re able to help because of those relationships with the county election officials, to be able to make those calls so that they could then reach out to the relevant precinct or polling place to resolve those issues.

Those have been the success stories. We’re pleased that we’ve been able to function the first time as we’ve adapted to this pandemic. We were able to have the program largely in a virtual format except for the field program. That’s been a major success, as is adapting for these unprecedented times that we find ourselves in. It’s been very rewarding for me as chair of Georgia’s Election Protection, the legal committee through the Lawyers’ Committee. It’s a collaborative effort. We work with so many partners and other organizations, and we were all able to work together to benefit and to protect Georgia voters on a nonpartisan basis.

Why do you believe there has been such an increase in election support from big law firms this year?

It’s a very positive sign. There is a lot more awareness of the importance of engagement by the legal community. If you look at the legal profession in the role that we’re supposed to have as lawyers in helping ensure the rule of law and the protection of civil liberties and civil rights, there is an acknowledgment for many reasons. I think that we, as a nation, are a lot more aware (as we should be) of racial injustice from what we have seen with the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. There is a heightened sense of awareness of the importance of engagement about the legal community, whether it’s to deal with policing practices or criminal justice reform, or certainly in this environment, in terms of voting.

The pandemic has resulted in the need for and the interest in absentee voting so that voters could vote safely without having to be exposed to the virus. Those issues, combined with a degree of skepticism and rhetoric haven’t been productive in the national discourse about voter security.

It’s my sense that the legal community realized that voters needed our help and they were willing to answer the call, engaging in pro bono service in a way that they’d never done before. It’s been very encouraging. To your point, to go from 5,000 volunteers to 23,000 speaks to where we are as a nation. The desire for engagement, driven partially by the negative environment that we have, is certainly a positive response. It’s important that we maintain the focus, that there is nothing partisan about ensuring that all eligible American voters are able to vote and for their votes to be counted. For them to not be disenfranchised, that’s what we should be about as a nation. It’s part of our DNA, or should be, I believe. I’m just really happy that the legal community has risen to the occasion to help protect our democracy in this very important way.

Caitlan McCafferty: We’ve been watching that as a legal industry partner. At Furia Rubel we’ve watched big law step up for pro bono, for the pandemic, racial injustice, and the election. It’s been really gratifying to watch. It’s wonderful to support these law firms and the lawyers that do the work.

To learn more about how one Am Law 200 firm is using pro bono to work towards solutions to 2020’s challenges, listen to the On Record PR episode with Jeremy Sacks, Pro Bono Committee Chair of Stoel Rives.

Harold Franklin: I’ll say that my firm King & Spalding, has been out front in terms of social justice initiatives and provides opportunities for our lawyers to engage in many of those efforts. We’ve been able to partner with our clients on these efforts in the election protection context for many years. I’ve been involved almost since the beginning. We’ve had so many more volunteers than we’ve ever had before. That’s a positive sign. Something the firm values is pro bono service– giving back and protecting democracy in a non-partisan way is really important. That’s been very encouraging.

What recommendations do you give to individuals who want to use their time, talents, and voice to support voting rights in the achievement of social justice in the short term?

In the short term? I think just to be informed and understand these issues, which are not as simple as many would make them out to be. For example, people who ask, “What the big deal is with photo ID?” If they look at the actual data, they’ll then understand why the results of some of these measures don’t justify the means. In other words, if you’re seeking to prevent voter fraud, which is incredibly rare, you’re wiping out huge swaths of voters, tens of thousands of voters, and the data reflects that many of them are communities of color that are disproportionately affected. This is the kind of honest discussion that we need to have and why this issue is relevant.

I would encourage lawyers to be informed about the actual issues and the data, not the rhetoric, and then to become engaged in being a part of helping ensure that we remain the greatest nation on earth, and that is that our elections have integrity so voters can have confidence in the process and the outcome of elections. We are working to prevent these efforts to disenfranchise.

Just taking an honest look, it’d be hard to argue with credibility; many of these measures that have been put in place post-Shelby are anything but efforts to de-select, to frame, or to limit who gets to vote for or against a party. That’s important to keep in mind. This is about our democracy, about our core values, no matter what side of the aisle you’re on. We should all agree with that.

Do you have any final thoughts on your work for this election cycle? Anything else that you would love for listeners to know?

I’m hopeful and optimistic. Congressman Lewis and I talked about the Voting Rights Act and how devastating it was to for it to be affected the way it was after the Shelby County decision. I’m hopeful that the John Lewis Voting Rights Act of 2020 will be passed and that we’ll have those protections back in place so that we are not having to engage afterwards to prevent some of these efforts to disenfranchise. That’s something I am hopeful about. I think that I’m optimistic about the level of engagement and where we are headed as a nation. I’m optimistic about when you look at the very diverse demographic groups within our country, that we’re all coalescing around core values of preventing discrimination in all of its forms. I think those are great things that we’re seeing and that we’re moving in the right direction as a nation. I’m optimistic, but as long as there is a need for this type of work in advocacy, the legal community should remain heavily engaged. I certainly will always do that.

Caitlan McCafferty: Harold, I am thrilled you could join me today. I really enjoyed our conversation. I’m sure our listeners have too. Where can our listeners learn more about Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law?

Harold Franklin: The organization is the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. You can find us on the internet. If you want information about electoral protection, you can go to 866ourvote.org, or call the phone number 1-866-OURVOTE to learn more about the election protection, a nationwide initiative. That’s what I would suggest for those who would like to get involved. We’ve got law firms and solo practitioners across the country, folks in government, who’ve been heavily engaged in this. These are great resources and we would encourage you to get involved.

Caitlan McCafferty: Thank you so much for your time today. I hope you get some rest.

Harold Franklin: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure, Caitlan, and thank you for what you’re doing to inform the public on this very important topic. Glad to be with you.

Learn More & Connect

Learn more about Harold Franklin

Learn more about King & Spalding

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/harold-franklin-jr-486a953a/

Learn more about the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law

Learn more about Election Protection

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