This year we celebrated milestones in our democracy, including the centennial anniversary of the 19th Amendment. While we celebrate this important anniversary, we must also recognize that there is much work ahead to ensure that all people are empowered to exercise their right to vote. The firm’s ML Women Initiative hosted a panel discussion with women leaders of organizations on the frontlines of securing voting accessibility.
Nancy Anderson, pro bono director of The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and Hannah Fried, national campaign director of All Voting is Local shared their personal stories and the work their organizations are doing to safeguard the ballots of every American, especially those from historically marginalized groups, in November.
Moderated by Erin Rodgers Schmidt, co-leader of ML Women Philadelphia and the Mobilizing for Equality Voting Rights & Engagement group, the discussion covered the key voting rights issues of our time and what businesses and individuals can do to support voting rights in their communities.
Below are some highlights from the discussion:
The panelists on what is keeping them up at night:
- Our organization runs an election protection hotline, 866-OUR-VOTE. We plan to have over 20,000 volunteers staffing the hotline remotely this election season. When I look back at our other biggest election, 2008, we only had 6,000 volunteers for the cycle. But we received more calls by July 2020 than we received throughout the entire 2018 mid-terms. Being able to staff the hotline and answer the sheer volume of calls we receive keeps me up at night. In addition to answering questions, especially about voting by mail, we have filed numerous lawsuits concerning vote by mail, such as challenging the signature match requirements, which is a very subjective process that can cause hundreds of thousands of applications and ballots to be thrown out. I want this to be a fair election—that whoever wins does so legitimately. We have also filed a lawsuit in Georgia concerning purging the voter registrations rolls—we just heard about that issue by chance. And this isn’t just a presidential election; state and local elections are incredibly important as well.
- We’ve all been dealing with the impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic for the past six months, and election officials have been dealing with it as well. We saw in the primaries that this is not a normal election year. COVID-19 exacerbated inequities that have hindered access to the polls in cities like Milwaukee, Atlanta, and Philadelphia for generations. I’m up at night wondering if all voting sites will stay open. Will poll workers show up? Despite the challenges that keep people trying to vote in lines for hours, I am so inspired by the people willing to wait to exercise their right to vote. They are what inspires our fight to dismantle barriers to the ballot well before November. In 2018 we worked in collation with other organizations in five states: Arizona, Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin. This year we have expanded to three more states: Georgia, Nevada, and Michigan.
Nancy on the need for volunteers:
- We plan to keep the national voter hotline staffed through Thanksgiving because we expect people will be questioning what happened to their ballots. We offer on-demand training for lawyers, paralegals, and law students interested in volunteering. Trained legal volunteers have the skills to understand the nuances of the absentee voting systems in each state and can get the right information out there. While the majority of rules are already in place, we and other organizations are engaged in litigation around this process in hopes that things are going to change. For example, in one state voters are required to have their absentee ballots signed by a notary. What regular person has access to a notary during normal times, let alone during a pandemic? We are working through legal channels right now to have that changed. I hope that it will be. The other need is for poll monitors for in person voting locations or for absentee ballot drop boxes. They serve as witnesses and are often able to answer questions. We found during the primary season that these positions are critical. The poll monitors from a broad collation of nonpartisan organizations are reporting up to the hotline.
Hannah on the need for poll workers and get out the vote campaigns:
- The average age of a poll worker is 61, in states like Michigan it’s 70. As we all know, older people are more vulnerable to COVID-19. If you are comfortable serving, this is a wonderful year to step up. We know from the primaries that many states closed locations because they did not have enough poll workers. It is a long day. It is a big obligation. But if you do volunteer, you will be a frontline worker that day. You will be on the frontlines of our democracy. Businesses like Morgan Lewis are supporting democracy by giving their employees paid time off to volunteer. It’s also very important to lean on state election officials to do this work too. So many groups are doing both high and low-tech voter registration campaigns. We fill in gaps to reach particular communities and those gaps are different in every state, even within states. Just the other day I was talking to an election official in Florida who I have known for years. At the start of the pandemic, he immediately got to work on plans get to election information out via restaurant and grocery delivery, really any way he could reach people. On the corporation and business side, we’ve seen many using their platform to get out the vote. Large venues that aren’t using their space in typical fashion due to COVID-19 are even using their physical space to support the cause.
The panelists on resilience:
- Nancy: We are here today talking about this particular election and voting, but this work for racial justice and voting rights has been happening for many years and will continue. In many respects because of COVID-19, progress that has been made regarding civil rights in past years is backsliding. I encourage all of you to stay engaged in these issues. Make the five-year, 30-year commitment.
- Hannah: If you ask voters in places where they have waited in long lines for many years, or been denied ballots or IDs, they aren’t surprised by what is happening now. But what COVID-19 has done for voting and other issues of racial justice is shine the brightest possible spotlight on these problems. We have to get through November. But I think the big question is what happens after?
Throughout the conversation, the panelists highlighted several resources to get accurate information regarding the upcoming election. We have included links to those resources below.
Nonpartisan Voting Rights Organizations