For the past six years in November, teams of staff and attorneys at Davis Wright Tremaine have volunteered to travel to key states and serve as poll volunteers. They have worked in rural areas, on reservation lands of Native Nations, and in large Metropolitan areas, all with the mission to ensure that every person eligible to vote can exercise that right. We asked some of those volunteers to share their stories.
Q: What was your most memorable experience doing this work?
Adam: In November 2020, I served as a poll watcher in western North Carolina. It is a highly split area, where the incredibly liberal city of Asheville is surrounded by very conservative rural communities. I did my best to assist individuals outside of the polling station with any questions they might have. Other than a case of stolen campaign signs, I was heartened to see that things went smoothly on election day despite seemingly historic concerns around potential violence. I saw a Republican campaigner readily directing people towards the Democrat campaign table if they were looking for Democrat sample ballots, and I saw people of all political stripes chipping in when the wind blew the Republican campaign table's canopy and materials all over the place. It was very heartening to see that, despite all the vitriol on the airwaves, there remained a strong community spirit that crossed party lines.
Tiphanie: This year will be my second election serving as a Chief Election Judge in Maryland. As a Chief Election Judge, I have the responsibility of operating a polling place. That includes not only picking up supplies and setting up the polling place, but also overseeing the election judges, answering questions, solving problems that arise, and making sure that the voters' experience goes smoothly. I love seeing the octogenarians coming out to vote (usually dressed in their Sunday best) and appreciating how important it is to them. This work is important to me, because as a person of color, most times you don't see yourself represented in polling places in any capacity. I want to be that familiar face.
Katie: I have been involved in and a leader of DWT's election protection efforts in every Congressional and Presidential election since 2016, when I started a DWT-supported voting rights initiative in the San Francisco office. I, along with three others, travelled to Florida in 2016 to participate in election protection efforts. In 2018, we expanded that initiative to include other DWT offices and were able to almost completely staff the Navajo Nation area in Arizona. I served as a poll observer and, while the experience was one of the most tiring (election protections efforts started at 5 a.m. and went until 11 p.m.), it was also one of the most rewarding.
Judy: In November 2018, I was a poll watcher at two locations in Arizona: one was on the lands belonging to the Navajo Nation, and the other on the Hopi reservation. We had to be at our various polling stations well before sunup. This meant driving on dirt roads in the pitch black for well over an hour. But it was so worth it to watch the Native Americans – one after the other – come in to vote all day long, many after driving for hours because polling stations were few and far between. Many of the voters' ballots were challenged by poll workers, in most cases for reasons that – although legitimate – were unique to these voters. Most streets on the Navajo Nation lands don't have names, so when a street name was required, the ballot was challenged. Part of our job was to make sure these voters understood what the challenge meant, and where they should go if they were turned away and not allowed to vote conditionally. It was exhausting, but gratifying work.
Brett: As a poll observer in Atlanta in 2021, I enjoyed engaging with voters. It was also a great way to see firsthand what is going on in states where they have enacted restrictive and confusing voting laws, such as Georgia's SB 202. Although there were thankfully not many issues that day, there were enough to see that we were filling a big need by helping overcome the restrictions and confusion.
John: I was a poll observer in 2020 in a new polling location in Upper Darby Township, Pennsylvania, outside of Philadelphia, that was a combination of three prior primary voting locations. As a result, many voters were unfamiliar with the polling place and did not know which one of three lines to stand in. Those lines were not organized alphabetically or by zip code, but instead by unclear precinct lines. I worked with many voters to figure that out. One Spanish speaking voter was reluctant to stay the course after the first line turned out to be the wrong one. No one helped him and he was set to leave without voting. So, I stepped in and escorted him to the second line and, when that was also the wrong one, I waited with him in the third line which was the right one. He would have given up if I hadn't stuck it out.
Q: Why did you volunteer for this work?
Tiphanie: When people of all races, regardless of political affiliation, say thank you for doing this work, it feeds your soul and is worth your time and energy.
Katie: Pro bono has always held a special place in my heart. It is my way of giving back to my community and making sure that those without a voice are heard. I can think of no greater attack on people's voices than voter suppression. Despite recent wins in voting rights, voter suppression remains a significant problem in many parts of our country and the sad reality is that elections can be won by simply making it harder for certain populations and demographics to vote. Voting rights will always be a cause that I champion but it is not something that one person can tackle alone. That is why I not only volunteer myself but create opportunities for others to champion voting rights as well.
Judy: In November 2020, when the pandemic was still raging, I was a poll watcher in Las Vegas, Nevada – again with a team from DWT. This time, I brought along my 16-year-old granddaughter and a friend of hers. Both girls are budding activists and were thrilled to be part of the election process. They had taken the same on-line Nevada law training I had taken, and they had memorized every single detail (whereas I had not!). I am sure these teenagers will be lifelong, committed voters.
Brett: The close vote in many states in 2020 has underscored the importance of making every vote count.
John: With all the argument over stolen elections, we should do everything we can to ensure people vote and that the process is fair. I may have only helped one voter cast his ballot, but that one vote counted.