Beating Back the Bullies on Election Day

It’s no secret that an organized, well-coordinated effort to make it harder to vote threatened to disenfranchise up to five million Americans on Tuesday.

But it turns out that voting rights advocates were organized and well-coordinated, too.

And in the wake of the winning candidates’ victory speeches and noisy midnight celebrations, it’s clear who else won: the American voter.

Of course, there were serious and systematic problems with election administration in communities across this country — more on that later.

On Tuesday, Common Cause, thousands of our grassroots volunteers, and over 5,000 pro bono attorneys worked in unison with a broad coalition of Election Protection partners in defending the bedrock freedom of our democracy: casting a ballot and having it counted.  It was the natural continuation of our year-round work to advocate for better election administration.

Before the election, we braced for large-scale confrontations at the polls between poorly-trained poll watchers and eligible voters.  We outlined our concerns in a report Bullies at the Ballot Box.  We (along with our co-authors at Demos) wrote that our “intent [was] to help minimize the level of activity that moves from positive civil engagement to voter intimidation and suppression.”  One group, True the Vote, announced plans to recruit one million poll watchers  to guard against  “voter fraud.”  Their rhetoric was at times overheated and demeaning.  (Click here to watch an ABC News Nightline interview with True the Vote’s founder). Concerns about their tactics even triggered an ongoing investigation by the ranking member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings.  (You can read the documents launching the investigation here and here.)

As a result of our voter protection campaign and the widespread media coverage of their activities, True the Vote, its affiliated state organizations and other poll watcher organizers were put on notice: there would be zero tolerance for bullying at the ballot box.

Fortunately, for the most part, their impact on the election was negligible, and it appears that they fell far short of their goal of recruiting a million poll watchers.  Although there were scattered reports of poll watcher problems, citizen challenges generally did not materialize at the scale with which they were threatened. In fact, True the Vote’s pre-election bluster pretty much backfired.  For example, not only were True the Vote volunteers barred from entering polling places in various towns in Ohio, they motivated eligible Americans to go to the polls and have their voices heard – voting early in record numbers throughout the country and in record long lines on Election Day.

That brings me to the important part of this post: the incredible work of the Election Protection coalition on Election Day.

For months, Common Cause has been recruiting thousands of nonpartisan poll monitors in states all across the country – swing states, red states, and blue states.  We recruited volunteers from our membership in places like Florida, California, Colorado, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, Arizona and New Mexico.  These volunteers were our eyes and ears – and boots on the ground – in our drive to help voters with nonpartisan, critical election information.  Clad in dark blue Election Protection t-shirts, palm cards in hand, they helped voters find precincts, passed the word on identification requirements where necessary, and even provided bottled water to folks waiting in hundreds of hours-long lines.  (As Common Cause’s Jenny Flanagan told The Washington Post, “it shouldn’t be an endurance sport to cast a ballot in our country.”).

Our volunteers were also liaisons between voters and 866-OUR-VOTE – the nonpartisan Election Protection hotline and its staff of thousands of attorneys and law students.  Our call centers were spread from coast to coast and the hotline was in regular contact with mobile legal teams we assembled to dispatch attorneys to polling places and help solve problems.

On Election Day alone, the hotline answered 86,600 telephone calls from voters seeking information.

I had the honor of working Tuesday in the Election Protection National Command Center in downtown Washington with colleagues from Common Cause, our partner organizations, and others from around the country.  We spent close to 20 hours huddled in rooms piled high with volunteer lawyers, telephones, and coffee cups  –  dispatching attorneys and speaking with election administration officials about problems, spotting trends that needed attention, alerting the press in regular press conferences and coordinating with volunteers in the field.

The buzz was exhilarating,, the teamwork extraordinary, and the defense of democracy exceptional.

Here is a brief rundown of just a few of the issues that came up repeatedly:

*          Hundreds of calls from Pennsylvania voters, confused about what form of identification could be requested by poll workers, and what form of identification actually had to be provided.  Many of these calls were prompted by large posters in polling places, incorrectly advising voters they needed photo identification to cast a ballot.

*          Polling places closing early in Michigan and Ohio, turning voters away who were lawfully in line before the polls closed and were entitled to vote.

*          Over 12,000 robocalls inaccurately informing voters that they had an extra day to return absentee ballots in Florida.

*          Confusion over polling place locations in New Jersey in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

*          Misleading flyers in communities misdirecting voters to incorrect polling places.

*          Numerous and disturbing reports of voting machine breakdowns that left hundreds of voters in line – sometimes for up to five hours – because the polling locations had inadequate paper ballots or working machines as back-up.  Many of the machine problems took place in critical “swing” states like Florida, Virginia (particularly the Tidewater and Northern Virginia regions), Pennsylvania, and North Carolina.

*          Phone calls from FEMA-employees and power-company employees in New Jersey and New York, helping with Hurricane Sandy-related clean up.  These individuals were thousands of miles from home, and just wanted to participate on Election Day but through no fault of their own missed the deadline to apply for an absentee ballot.

*          Voters in Pennsylvania and Ohio who were told they were not in voter registration databases, even though they had voted for years in those jurisdictions, including in the last election.

Election Protection volunteers often were able to solve voters’ problems, large and small.  For example, after Common Cause joined with allies to ask Governor Andrew Cuomo to allow storm displaced New Yorkers to cast their ballots in any precinct (to alleviate some of the confusion left by Hurricane Sandy), he moved forward with a plan that would allow tens of thousands of New Yorkers to be heard at the polls . Legal volunteers also were able to persuade election officials to re-open polling places that were shuttered early, or that had major machine breakdowns.  And they called county administrators to describe paper ballot and provisional ballot shortages in communities where voting machines broke down, or where power failures continued to cause problems after the hurricane.  For the vast majority of calls, hotline volunteers quickly answered voters’ questions about the voting process of voting, and provided the accurate, nonpartisan information they needed.

But many of the problems we saw Tuesday can only be solved with serious, smart election reform.  That should begin again in earnest at the start of the new Congress and in state legislative sessions throughout the country.  It’s critical that we expand early voting, lower barriers to voter registration, and ensure that poll workers are well-trained. We will continue to demand an election process that is free, fair and accessible for all citizens – irrespective of party and politics.

That is our common cause.

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