The voices of democracy in action filled UNC School of Law last Nov. 6, Election Day. But it wasn’t a polling place — law students staffed a hotline to support voter participation.
Through the Election Protection Hotline, sponsored by the UNC Center for Civil Rights, about 90 students answered nearly 1,000 calls from around North Carolina with a range of questions, including where polling places were located, problems with state agency voter registrations, how to cast a provisional ballot, issues related to voter change of address, the legality of a sign outside a precinct, and other issues.
“The hotline provides equal access to all voters on Election Day and during early voting by offering non-partisan assistance on everything from technical issues to real and perceived barriers to the voting process,” says Elizabeth Haddix ’98, senior staff attorney at the center, based at UNC School of Law. “The hotline is a discrete project that allows law students to assist the people of North Carolina in exercising a fundamental civil right and core democratic principle.”
Since the 2004 elections, the Center for Civil Rights has hosted North Carolina’s call center for Election Protection, a nationwide voter-advocacy initiative of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights. UNC Law faculty, staff and alumni, and other attorneys, helped with the hotline on Nov. 6.
The hotline provides invaluable experience for students. “Many students had not participated in pro bono projects before, so it was wonderful to see them working with callers to help them cast a ballot,” says Meriwether Evans, a third-year student and director of the law school’s Pro Bono Program. “I gained a true appreciation for what we can accomplish when we work together toward a common goal.”
UNC School of Law’s Black Law Students Association co-sponsored the hotline. Staff of the Center for Civil Rights trained volunteers.
In the weeks leading up to Election Day, center staff and UNC law students also held community education sessions for voters about registration, early voting and absentee ballots. The sessions were particularly important because many North Carolinians vote early. “We felt that educating the public would reduce the number of issues faced by voters on Election Day and allow more people to exercise their right to vote,” Haddix says.
At the presentations, “Students also talked to community members about potential illegal activity at polling places, and what they could do if they noticed anything that looked suspicious,” Evans says.
Just as UNC law students assisted voters’ participation, Election Protection motivated students.
“I was really inspired by how many North Carolinians care about participating in the democratic process,” Evans says. “I often hear the cynical comment that it doesn't make logical or statistical sense to vote, that one ballot won't make a difference. But that act does mean something within a state and community. We received calls from people from all walks of life and helped individuals who supported any candidate or party cast a meaningful ballot. Yet in the end, it was up to voters to take time out of their busy schedules to get to the polling places, and that's just what they did.”
-December 18, 2012