Students Escalate Voting, Campaign Efforts as Election Nears
Under the long shadow of the 2000 election debacle and with higher voter turnout expected nationwide this year, a number of law students have mounted a volunteer effort to campaign for their party and ensure all votes are counted. Some Virginia Law Republicans are traveling to West Virginia to work as party-affiliated legal advisers for election officials and do some last-minute campaigning, while the Virginia Law Democrats, Just Democracy and the Election Protection Program are marshalling students in Virginia to serve as poll workers, help the Secretary of the State Board of Elections, and offer advice to voters who may be turned away from polls.
"The goal is non-partisan. We're trying to protect everyone's right to vote," said first-year law student Paul Crane, who heads the DNC's Election Protection Program at the Law School. Thirty students have signed up to work with the program, which posts volunteers outside polls to ensure registered voters were able to cast their ballots.
"This election is obviously extremely important to us," said Virginia Law Democrats president Jacob Olcott, a volunteer organizer who will work with Election Protection in Pittsylvania County Tuesday. While many students will volunteer locally, some are planning to travel to Lynchburg and Buckingham County. "We want to make sure that [poll workers are] giving the right information to voters who are showing up at the polls," he said.
Due to budgetary and time constraints, not all election officials are trained as well as they could be, he added. A common misconception is that voters need two forms of identification, when they only need one, such as a voter card, a driver's license, an employee ID, a passport, or a Social Security card. Even if they have no form of identification, voters can fill out a provisional ballot. Another common problem happens when a person moves and unwittingly votes at the wrong precinct. Under Virginia law the election officials are obligated to call the registrar's office and see where they are supposed to vote. "Don't take no as an answer," Olcott suggested.
Furthermore, many Virginia counties have not completed their voter rolls by the time they were required to be printed, and although officials are supposed to write in late additions, it is possible a voter's name could be missing from the list due to late registration, Olcott said, and a voter could be denied a ballot. Students with a basic understanding of election law should be able to spot such potential problems quickly. "We want to be there to make sure that kind of thing isn't happening, whether it's intentional or not," Olcott said.
Five to 10 students, including organizer and second-year law student Mike Buchwald, are traveling to Richmond to work with the State Board of Elections, troubleshooting and getting a behind-the-scenes look at the election in progress. About 10 students plan to campaign for Al Weed and John Kerry in get-out-the-vote drives.
Several students have signed up to serve as local election officials, who must man their posts from 6 a.m. (arriving at a brisk 5:15) until 7 p.m. Tuesday.
Members of the Virginia Law Republicans have been making calls on behalf of their candidates every Tuesday night with the Albemarle County Republicans, and in conjunction with the College Republicans, they have been traveling to Pennsylvania to campaign door-to-door and call voters.
Third-year law student Joshua Johnson, the Law Republicans' Vice-Chair for Campaigns, traveled to West Virginia Thursday to be part of the "72 Hour Team," which will focus on last-minute work such as canvassing, arranging for rides for voters, and poll watching for incidents of fraud.
Law Republicans President Dave Thomas and seven students will journey to West Virginia Monday to ensure the Helping Americans Vote Act (HAVA) is being followed. Passed in 2002, HAVA works to standardize voting nationwide by requiring first-time voters to show ID and allowing for the casting of provisional ballots.
"The fear is that since is the first election in which HAVA's been in effect, that a lot of registrars will either not understand it or misapply it," Thomas said.
Because West Virginia doesn't allow party workers near polling locations, the students will work in the county clerk's office in five locations along the eastern border and in the southeast region of the state.
"When a problem arises, we'll have someone on hand who's familiar with the HAVA," he said. Questions have already cropped up in states that have early voting-whether provisional ballots cast in the wrong precinct should be counted, for example, is being determined by each state. Historically, in union states like West Virginia, union workers might block non-union or Republican voters from polls, and Republican bosses wouldn't give union employees time off to vote, Thomas noted. Voting fraud is nothing new, but it has been brought into the legal domain by the 2000 election. Even now, the county that includes Columbus, Ohio, has 847,000 registered voters-but only 815,000 residents of voting age, he said. Furthermore, when workers purge registration roles of deceased or illegal voters, Republican officials might purge Democratic voters and vice versa.
"The attitude at the time was 'you did it better than we did, you ought to win,'" he said. This year, however, lawyers stand at the ready to file lawsuits in case of a close election. Thomas said he will be packing a camera and will document incidents when conflicts arise, because "chances are they'll all end up in court."