Faced with historic ‘voter anxiety,’ coalition wants to arm Pa. voters with info at the polls

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - SEPTEMBER 23: Signage at an early voting center on September 23, 2016 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Minnesota residents can vote in the general election every day until Election Day on November 8. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

In a normal election year, it’s hard enough for some Pennsylvanians to get their hands on the information they need to cast an informed ballot. Now imagine what that’s like in the middle of the worst public health crisis in a century.

That’s where the Pennsylvania Election Protection Coalition comes in to address the hurdles facing voters as they cast their ballots.

The biggest challenge facing voters this year is “voter confusion,” according to Suzanne Almeida, interim executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania.

“We’re seeing voter anxiety that we haven’t really seen in the past. Voters have a lot of questions,” Almeida said.

Led by Common Cause Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Election Protection Coalition launched this year’s voter protection program, Election Protection 2020, in September.

“We’re hearing on the national stage, from experts and from candidates, about the importance of Pennsylvania. So, we want to do everything we can to make sure we have a smooth election,” Almeida said.

The program has its roots in a 2001 national campaign spearheaded by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

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With the non-partisan goal of making certain that all Pennsylvanians have a safe and equitable voting experience, this year’s coalition includes ACLU-Pennsylvania, CASA, Pennsylvania Voice, All Voting is Local, Make the Road Pennsylvania, Committee of 70, SEAMAAC, University of Pittsburgh Institute for Cyber Law, Policy, and Security, the National Urban League, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the Fair Elections Center, and One Pennsylvania.

While the Pennsylvania Election Protection Coalition has been in operation for more than a decade, this year’s obstacles have pushed the coalition into maximum overdrive.

“We are obviously increasing our capacity,” Almeida said.

Election Protection 2020 utilizes a three-pronged approach to ensure a plain-sailing voting experience for Pennsylvanians. The three parts of the initiative are advocacy, education, and an extensive field operation and voter hotline. 

“We work closely with the counties, the Department of State, where it’s useful with the legislature to make sure that we have policies in place that support smooth voting, and make sure that every eligible voter can cast a ballot,” Almeida said. “We also, on the other end, work to push back on bad policies.” 

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Their advocacy also comes in the form of filling policy gaps to protect vulnerable populations. 

“I have been a little concerned that you know, our areas all have a growing Latino population and growing Latino voter population,” Elizabeth Alex, chief of organizing and leader of CASA, a Latino and immigrant advocacy organization, said. “But by law those populations are not large enough to require and mandate bilingual communication from either local or state election boards.”

She said CASA is filling in the gaps by ensuring there are Spanish translations of important voting information and by providing voters with access to interpreters at the polls on Election Day.

Voter education is another bullet point in the Election Protection 2020 agenda.

“Our real goal is to make sure that everyone is able to have the information and the tools they need to participate in our democracy,” Alex said.

Although the coalition is unified in its goal, voter education takes a different shape for each partner.

“For Common Cause that looks like providing information directly to voters through social media, through advertisements, through other avenues of reaching out,” Almeida said.

Other partners with deep ties in their communities take the lead in lifting Election Protection 2020 information and engaging voters.

CASA is fresh off a 2020 Census campaign, so they believe they have an invaluable head start in establishing sincere connections within communities. 

“They knew who we were, they trusted us,” Alex said. “So we definitely engaged all of those people that we had already been talking to.”

The final piece of the puzzle is the 1-866-OUR-VOTE hotline, which is managed by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and the election day field operation.

“It is staffed by volunteer lawyers who are trained on election law, as well as trained on exactly what’s happening in Pennsylvania,” Almeida said in regards to the hotline which is currently fielding 300 to 500 calls a day.

Callers have largely asked about their mail-in ballots. 

The field program is an election network of volunteer poll monitors that will be placed at polling locations throughout the state. 

Volunteers will be trained to help voters find their polling location, answer questions about ballots, and observe trends in voter issues, according to Almeida.

In 2018, the coalition had recruited 500 volunteer poll monitors, according to Almeida. In an effort to rise to the challenge that the 2020 General Election presents, the coalition plans to deploy about 2,000 volunteer poll monitors.

These poll monitors will be directed primarily to 11 counties including – Allegheny, Chester, Delaware, Berks, York, Northampton, Lehigh, Dauphin, and Centre counties, according to Almeida.

“As an election protection volunteer, what you do is you’re assigned to a single polling place or series of polling places, and you are responsible for answering any questions that a voter, or potential voter may have about a number of issues,” Brian Cullin, an attorney who has been a volunteer Election Protection poll monitor since 2018, said.

For Cullin, this volunteer work is an act of service.

“It’s about helping folks out so that every voice regardless of race, gender, political persuasion, whatever it may be, their right as an American is to go and cast a vote. And so we want to make sure that they can do that,” Cullin said.

When it comes to potential issues facing the poll monitors and although all volunteers will be wearing PPE, COVID-19 is still the primary concern.

“For the field, I think the biggest challenge is quite frankly, COVID. We know that we are still in the midst of a global pandemic. We’re starting to really see an uptick in cases in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, and so we are concerned that our volunteers are able to be as safe as possible on election day,” Almeida said. 

On the voters’ side of the coin, the coalition believes that there are a few obstacles that voters may have to deal with such as long lines and individuals not wearing PPE, according to Almeida.

The new dynamic of mail-in voting could also sow some confusion.

“I think a challenge that we’re both prepared for and expecting, based on my experience volunteering for the primary, is a lot of questions about mail-in ballots,” Cullin said.

With divisive national rhetoric and recent high profile incidents involving far-right militias, the potential for voter intimidation casts a shadow of unease for communities of color.

“There’s lots of things that make people nervous right now and I think, especially in black and brown communities where there’s national rhetoric of unwelcoming, we need to take extra steps just to make sure that everyone is able to vote and feel safe voting,” Alex said. “And so that’s part of what we’ll also be monitoring for.”

With Pennsylvania being one of five battleground states without laws prohibiting individuals from bringing firearms to the polls, there is a legitimate cause for concern.

“People are nervous about voter intimidation,” Alex said.

While the Pennsylvania Election Protection Coalition does not expect there to be any instances of voter intimidation, partners have contingency plans in place and have been in contact with state election officials to ensure that they are prepared.

“We are lucky to have been in touch with all of the local boards of election in our area,” Alex said. “I know they all have plans in place, and we’ve been working with them and so I’m hopeful that we won’t have any incidents of voter intimidation in our area.”

Regardless of any major issues at the polls, all eyes will be on Pennsylvania on Nov. 3.

“I think that having this operation is super important, particularly because we know that, for better or worse – Pennsylvania is certainly ground zero this election,” Almeida said.

Kenny Cooper is a Hearken Election SOS Fellow helping the Capital-Star cover the 2020 presidential election in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter @Kenny_Cooper_Jr.