Pittsburgh lawyers to field voters' questions

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Today and Tuesday, attorney Miles Cooley plans to show up early at Reed Smith's Los Angeles office, where he will brew coffee and order pizzas for a lot of lawyers who don't work at the firm.

For 48 hours, in fact, Mr. Cooley expects to be surrounded by attorneys with whom he has gone head-to-head in court. In this instance, all of them will be working for the same outcome as they staff a call center to provide legal assistance to voters who have questions about where and how to cast their ballots or concerns about their voting rights.

The initiative, called Election Protection, is a volunteer coalition of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and was launched after the 2000 Gore-Bush presidential race when questions swirled around the validity of some ballots cast in the state of Florida.

Voters with issues and questions can call 1-866-OUR-VOTE, a toll-free number, for assistance.

"Our goal is we want lawyers and paralegals around the country to protect voting rights for all Americans," said Mr. Cooley, a partner in Reed Smith's Century City, Calif., office and a board member of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights.

At Election Protection's call center at Reed Smith's Los Angeles office, lawyers will answer inquiries from voters and assist other lawyers who are in the field observing polling places.

Reed Smith is one of 16 large firms expected to host Election Protection call centers in cities nationwide, according to a report in The AmLaw Daily.

Another call center is planned at the firm's Washington, D.C., office, while in Pittsburgh and Falls Church, Va., Reed Smith will operate command centers to deal with possible issues at polling sites, field calls from the media and file legal documents that may be needed to resolve voting problems.

Among those joining Reed Smith staff at the Pittsburgh command center are volunteers from law firm Jones Day, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, the Pennsylvania State Education Association and the University of Pittsburgh Law School.

Volunteers in the field include representatives from law firms Fox Rothschild; Morgan Lewis; Abes Baumann; Eckert, Seamans, Cherin & Mellott; Grayson Law Firm; Meyers Evans & Associates; Cohen & Grigsby; Neighborhood Legal Services; Duquesne University School of Law; and the United Steelworkers International.

Election Protection, which describes itself as nonpartisan, estimates more than 3,000 lawyers nationwide will be involved in the effort either by staffing command or call centers or working in the field.

Mr. Cooley, whose practice is primarily business litigation, has volunteered at Election Protection since 2004 when the coalition launched its national call center and website, 866ourvote.org.

With voters facing a host of confusing issues in some states this year -- including provisional ballots, voter identification requirements and extensions for absentee ballots as well as some facing problems traveling to polling places in the wake of Hurricane Sandy -- Election Protection believes it can "ensure access" to all those who want to vote.

"Really, it's an extension of the larger mission of voting rights and civil rights" espoused by the Lawyers' Committee, he said.

That organization was founded in June 1963 when civil rights confrontations were raging in Deep South states, including Alabama and Mississippi. President John Kennedy asked nearly 250 lawyers to convene at the White House to discuss how they could support racial equality for all Americans.

Since then, the Lawyers' Committee "has had a history of being front and center in the fight to protect voting rights" and address legal challenges to all citizens' rights, he said.

The committee provides software to the Election Protection centers that allows volunteers to track information on all registered voters to assist them with questions specific to their state. "And we can give them door-to-door directions to their polling places," Mr. Cooley said.

He expects to hear about voter suppression and intimidation at polling sites and to receive lots of questions about who needs identification to vote.

"I'll call it like I see it," he said. "Legislators from around the country of a particular political bent are trying to suppress voting rights. If there is intimidation out there, we will be making sure it is addressed and brought to the attention of authorities and stopped."

electionspresident - legalnews

Joyce Gannon: jgannon@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1580.


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