Two Dorsey & Whitney partners are gearing up for this year’s annual Election Protection effort, knowing that they’re looking at perhaps the most difficult election they’ve dealt with yet.
And they’re looking for attorney volunteers to lend a hand.
“There is an awful lot of anxiety around this election,” said Dorsey partner Jonathan A. Van Horn. “Even people that believe, as we do here, that all elections are important, this stands out.”
Election Protection has been described as the nation’s largest nonpartisan voter-rights coalition. In Minnesota, Dorsey partners Van Horn and Michael Pignato have coordinated Midwestern efforts for years, with help from fellow partner Clint Conner and others at the firm.
The effort, a key part of Dorsey’s pro bono efforts, has two main prongs that converge on election night.
The first is a hotline, staffed by “legal volunteers” (lawyers, actually), who answer voters’ questions about such topics as absentee ballot laws, where and when to vote and—in states where it’s applicable—what kinds of ID will pass muster with election judges. A central hotline runs all year long, but it gets beefed up regionally at election time.
Minnesota’s organizers will be responsible for calls coming in from five to seven states; the exact states haven’t been assigned just yet. Typically they’re responsible for Minnesota, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota and Iowa, plus one or two other states that rotate on and off the list.
The second prong is the local field program. That used to involve a small army of volunteer attorneys posted at lots of polling sites. But these days it involves a smaller group of mobile volunteers who drive around waiting to be dispatched to polling places where they are needed.
The two efforts often work hand in glove. Pignato describes one instance where a citizen in a voter ID state got turned away from the polling place. A mobile volunteer—invariably, that’s an attorney, too—was on hand. The volunteer looked over the voter’s documentation and found it in order. He then called the hotline for verification.
That task complete, the mobile volunteer instructed the voter to go back to the polls and refer the election judge to the right page of the local elections training manual. The voter went back inside and successfully cast a ballot.
“We’ve had that sort of thing happen pretty much every election,” Pignato said, “where there’s been an issue that’s been called in and we’ve been able to address it.”
In addition to the effort’s two main features, a litigation support team is also kept around, just in case something requiring legal action pops up. “We have people on standby that can go in and make a filing,” Pignato said.
The national Election Protection initiative is the brainchild of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. It was launched in 2000.
“They started the program recognizing that there was a need for a nonpartisan effort to help voters, and ensure that every voter both had the opportunity to vote and have that vote counted,” Pignato said.
The program also gathers information about the obstacles and issues that voters are facing, he said. Dorsey & Whitney has been involved as a coordinator in every election cycle since 2008.
If news about the nation’s volatile politics and the various states’ disparate efforts to grapple with COVID-19 weren’t clue enough, Pignato and Van Horn say they have direct, real-world evidence that 2020 will be the toughest election they’ve faced yet.
The men said that this year, for the first time, Election Protection fully staffed up its regional hotlines for two days surrounding Super Tuesday, the multi-state March 3 primary that launched Joe Biden to a nearly insurmountable delegate lead. President Donald Trump was the all-but-uncontested Republican on that day’s primary ballots.
Call volume during the primary was off the charts, the lawyers said. Questions poured in, especially about absentee ballots being received and getting counted. In some states, voters who had apps capable of tracking their mailed-in votes phoned in, troubled that their ballots weren’t registering as having either arrived or been counted.
“That creates an awful lot of anxiety for a voter,” Van Horn said. Post-Super Tuesday reports that U.S. Postal Service changes have slowed mail delivery likely will only make things even more complicated come the general election, he said.
Pignato and Van Horn offer advice to those who want to make sure their 2020 general election votes count: Either vote very early, or vote in person. They fully well know how tough their latter advice might be for some to accept.
“For someone that has chosen to submit a ballot by mail, because they have health issues that really make it dangerous for them to be in a physical polling place, that’s a really tough choice,” Van Horn said.
“I think it’s going to be crazy,” Pignato said of the forthcoming election.
So, those are just a few of the reasons why the two Dorsey attorneys want lots of help—they think they’ll need at least 150 Minnesota attorneys to volunteer. There are other reasons, too, not the least of which is a raft of judicial decisions around the country that have changed voting rules in the face of the pandemic.
Despite that, the men insist that volunteers don’t have to be full-time election attorneys to play a big role in the effort. “Neither Mike nor I are full-time election lawyers,” Van Horn jokes. “But we did sleep in a Holiday Inn Express last night.”
Truth is, the duo says, that the Lawyers Committee has developed a lot of resources to aid attorneys in helping voters answer questions. Additionally, over the years the committee has streamlined the project into a sophisticated, structured organization capable of escalating tough questions from field volunteers and phone banks to local captains all the way up to the national command center, if that’s what’s needed.
So what qualifications would you need? Technical know-how can help, Van Horn said, because the operation is fairly data rich and technology driven.
But beyond that, he said, just being a lawyer is enough. “I think it’s just curiosity and sort of a tenacity to try and find the answers,” Van Horn said.
Pignato said that 15 to 20 of the Twin Cities’ largest firms tend to sign up each year, as do individual attorneys from smaller firms and corporate attorneys from companies as diverse as UnitedHealth, U.S. Bank, Xcel Energy and 3M. Law school students also are encouraged to take part.
Those interested in volunteering can sign up on the national hotline website. Forms filled out there will be forwarded to Dorsey & Whitney’s program coordinators.