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“Election Protection. Can I Have Your Name?”

The New Yorker

Whatever your opinion of the election’s outcome, there seems to be have been a lot of agreement this year with President Obama’s assertion that the voting process itself is something “we have to fix.” One place to get a bird’s-eye view of Election Day chaos—besides your local polling place—was at one of the call centers set up by the Election Protection Coalition, a collection of voting and civil-rights advocates that runs a hotline, 1-866-OUR-VOTE, to help voters on Election Day. The group’s headquarters are in Washington, but a New York call center had been set up at the midtown offices of the law firm Proskauer Rose. At any given time on Monday or Tuesday, you could find about fifty lawyers gathered around a long table in Proskauer’s conference room, answering phones. Each lawyer was equipped with a laptop, to look up voter registration information. Reminders about voting rules had been projected onto the walls from a computer: “If you get a call about PEN COLOR—black is preferred but blue is OK.”


Nearby, a volunteer was on the phone with a voter in Toms River, who had arrived at her polling place to find it out of power. She scanned New Jersey state Web sites for alternate polling places, but they hadn’t been updated yet. “Do you know where the closest area is with power?” she asked the voter. “If you have any friends who you know are able to vote, I’d go to their polling place.”

“Try the Ocean County clerk’s office, fourth link down on right,” advised another captain, David Rubino. Rubino, a lawyer who works for the public-policy organization Demos, said that he had just spent several years monitoring elections in Azerbaijan. The problems there? “Blatant ballot-stuffing.” In the U.S. this year, he said, all the attention devoted to new voter-I.D. laws had created an extra layer of confusion. “We’re getting calls from people saying, ‘I voted. Why didn’t they check my I.D.?’ They’re mad they aren’t getting carded. You have to explain that in a state like New Jersey, they don’t need I.D.” He paused. “I’m no longer so sure Azerbaijan’s that much different.”

On the side of the room that was taking calls from Ohio, the vast majority of calls seemed to be from people who weren’t sure if they were registered to vote, but there were also accounts of poll-worker incompetence and possible voter intimidation. When a problem seemed significant, it was “escalated”—the Election Protection Coalition would send its lawyers on the ground out to a polling place. Volunteers fielded calls about Romney paraphernalia inside a voting booth; a New Jersey poll worker who, while helping a citizen to operate a voting machine, informed her, “Everyone here votes for Obama”; a group of Tea Partiers standing outside an elementary-school polling station doing what Rubino described as “screaming at people and telling them to get I.D.s.”

“Election Protection,” a male volunteer said, answering a phone on the Ohio side of the room. “Can I have your name and number in case we get disconnected?” After talking to the voter, he covered the phone and lobbed a question at Rubino: “Do you know if you’re supposed to get a receipt for early voting in Ohio?”

Rubino frowned. “Early voting in Ohio is very cryptic process.” He pulled up a manual on the volunteer’s computer. “Yes. The answer is yes. But it’s not called a receipt.”

Another volunteer shouted a question: “If somebody pays a bill and gets an e-mail showing the address, does that count as proof of residency?”

Rubino nodded. “It should be the same.”

A female volunteer asked, “What if you take a picture of your ballot and post it on Facebook? Does that mean your vote doesn’t count?”

“Certainly not in any election I know of,” Rubino said. “I wouldn’t recommend doing it though.”

“She says it’s on CNN.”