Vol. 46, No. 2

Called to serve: Lawyers, bar executive share their experiences as election workers

By Marilyn Cavicchia

As the nation approached a presidential election that would occur during an active pandemic, many people realized there would be a critical need for new volunteers to work at polling places. In general, poll workers tend to be older—and older people are in the high-risk category for COVID-19.

With many longtime volunteers needing to sit this one out for health reasons, who better to step in and help ensure an efficient and fair election process than lawyers?

That was the idea behind the ABA’s Poll Worker, Esq. initiative (in conjunction with the National Association of Secretaries of State and the National Association of State Election Directors), a national effort to encourage lawyers, as well as law students, to volunteer on Election Day 2020.

In a few states (including Ohio, where more than 1,000 lawyers volunteered), CLE credit was approved for those who served on Election Day. Whether by highlighting Poll Worker, Esq. or similar initiatives from other organizations or by simply getting the word out that lawyers’ help was needed, many bars encouraged their members to serve in this way, among them:

As the nation approached a presidential election, many people realized there would be a critical need for new volunteers to work at polling places.

As the nation approached a presidential election, many people realized there would be a critical need for new volunteers to work at polling places.

LifestyleVisuals / E+ Collection / Getty Images

A quiet day, despite the news van

Harvey Hurdle’s experience as November 2020 election judge for his ward in Philadelphia became much higher profile than he had anticipated—and not just because results from his city played a prominent part in determining the outcome of the presidential race.

“Our polling location was changed,” says Hurdle, who is executive director of the Philadelphia Bar Association, “and we were actually located in the Museum of the American Revolution. MSNBC broadcast from out front all morning.”

The day was long (about 5:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., all told) and busy, but also quiet, perhaps because of COVID-19: Out of 1,200 voters in Hurdle’s ward, 771 voted by mail. Hurdle, who has been an election judge for the past four years, says that in a typical election, his ward’s polling place would assist between 600 and 700 in-person voters.

Another effect of COVID-19, he noted, was that his team was markedly younger than usual, given that many of the usual volunteers for his ward are over 65. Hurdle was inspired by the energy and enthusiasm among the younger people who served—and impressed by how thoroughly they had studied the information they were given in advance.

All voters cooperated by wearing masks, Hurdle says, and poll workers were supplied with N95 masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer. One complicating factor, he adds, is that about 30 voters who intended to mail in their ballots because of COVID-19 ended up voting in person instead, out of fear that their votes would not be counted in time—which meant their mail-in ballots had to be “spoiled.” There were more provisional ballots this time, also to deal with cases where people changed their mind about voting by mail. But overall, he notes, despite the news coverage from outside and on social media, “It was a nice, quiet day with my bipartisan team.”

The only moment of upset, he said, was when a woman who had driven from Massachusetts to cast her ballot in person got agitated when her name was not on the list—but it was only because she was in the wrong line within the polling place. Whether in person or not, Hurdle says, “People were excited to participate,” and his ward saw a turnout of 85 percent of its registered voters.

Hurdle was pleased that two Philadelphia bar staff members took the day off to volunteer: one as an election judge, and the other driving elderly voters to the polls. Many bar members volunteered as well—including one board member who served as a poll watcher and happened to come through Hurdle’s polling site.

Before the election, bar Chancellor A. Michael Snyder issued a statement urging law firms to close or to give their employees time off with pay to vote and to serve as poll workers or poll watchers. In another statement, Snyder stressed the importance of counting all of the votes. The bar is also part of a coalition called Take Action Philly, which worked before the election to disseminate nonpartisan information for voters; bar members were encouraged to share the information with their clients, Hurdle adds.

“There was so much stress going in,” Hurdle says, regarding this particularly high-stakes election, “but it was a pretty stress-free day—until you got home and started watching the results and realizing you weren’t going to know who won yet.”

Helping voters overcome language barrier

For Andrew Chevrez, a solo lawyer in Milwaukee, one reason it was worth giving more than 15 hours of his time to serve as a poll worker was that he speaks Spanish and was able to help many Spanish-speaking voters. Chevrez was one of two or three bilingual workers at his site, and one of three lawyers, out of a total of about 20 workers.

Across the country, he believes, election authorities should be prepared to recruit enough bilingual workers—and not only to assist Spanish-speaking voters. Different locales have differing populations of immigrants, he noted, citing as an example the Hmong communities in some areas of Minnesota. Federal law requires language assistance at polling places once a locale reaches a certain threshold in terms of numbers of people who speak a particular language, Chevrez explains. The first time he assisted in an election was in 2012, he notes, when Milwaukee had recently reached the point where it needed Spanish-speaking poll workers.  

In addition to feeling called as a Spanish speaker, Chevrez also believes it’s important for him to serve as a poll worker because he’s a lawyer. “The procedures and the processes in place for voting can get quite technical,” he says. “I think lawyers are absolutely necessary to be at polling sites because they can sort these things out.” Lawyers are also well equipped, he adds, to defuse difficult situations by listening and communicating clearly.

Wisconsin is among the states offering same-day voter registration at polling places, and Chevrez’s main role in this election was to help register new voters and assist people who had been removed from the rolls because of inactivity or who had to deal with a change of address or name.

“The voters we saw were pretty motivated and determined to make their vote count,” Chevrez says, adding that (as was expected during the pandemic) the crowd of in-person voters was smaller than in past elections because of the increase in absentee ballots. Still, he notes, this was different from the “dreary” in-person participation that is typical in many elections.

“We did not see really long lines,” he says, “but we had a steady flow of people.”

The total of 20 workers (some working for half the day) was about double what is typical, he notes, and having so many within the site did cause him some concern about social distancing. Poll workers were provided with masks, face shields, and hand sanitizer, Chevrez adds, with Plexiglas to keep them separate from the voters. Unlike during Wisconsin’s August 2020 primary (for offices other than president), he says, no voters at his site came in without a mask.

Chevrez did not note any unusual incidents at his polling site and has not heard of any at other sites around Milwaukee. “Surprisingly, people were very civil, very cordial,” he says, adding that there was a large number of election observers, but that they mostly followed the rules about where they could be and whom they could talk to.

One of his other roles, Chevrez adds, was to reassure voters that any minor hiccups in getting them registered and ready to vote didn’t mean they would be unable to cast their ballot. Even during such a highly charged election, he says, for many people, voting is something akin to going to the dentist—meaning it’s an unpleasant chore. “Sometimes, if they’re impeded in the slightest, they’re a flight risk,” he jokes, “where they’ll say, ‘Well, forget it.’”

An important role for young lawyers

For David Pierce Jr., an associate at Johns, Flaherty & Collins, S.C., in LaCrosse, Wis., age was a factor in deciding to help with this election: At the time of the April 2020 presidential primary, Pierce was still in his 20s. Wisconsin was one of the states that opted—after initially calling it off—to hold its spring primary in person. The number of polling places in LaCrosse was reduced by about two thirds because so many poll workers were unable to serve because they were older and feared contracting COVID-19.

Like Chevrez, Pierce believes lawyers are especially well suited to be election workers. Not so much during the November election, but during the primary, some voters got a bit “chippy,” as he calls it—meaning irritable and impatient. “I do think that attorneys have the ability to calmly and rationally explain things to somebody who might not be calm and rational in accosting you,” he says.

Pierce served for half a day at a polling site in LaCrosse, primarily giving out ballots and processing absentee ballots. Processing the absentee ballots was a big job, he says, estimating that they made up about half of the ballots at his site.

Similar to what Hurdle and Chevrez experienced, Pierce said the overall mood at the site where he worked was positive. Poll workers were warned that there might be demonstrations outside their site, but these ultimately didn’t come to pass. Like Chevrez, Pierce said there were observers watching his site and that they followed the rules regarding their role. Pierce saw no irregularities and only a few minor issues, one of which was that the ballot machine got backed up a few times because there were so many ballots.

The State Bar of Wisconsin was active in urging lawyers to serve in the August primary and the November election, Pierce says, noting that he was one of four volunteers from his office, which has about 14 attorneys total—one of whom couldn’t volunteer because he was on the ballot.

Pierce encourages lawyers (particularly younger ones) to volunteer as poll workers, especially if any other elections occur during the pandemic. “I think it’s on young people,” he says, “to step up and realize that the average election worker falls within the category of those at risk in the pandemic.”

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