In the fight to defend all North Carolinians’ right to vote, the March 15 primary was the first major battle of the year. And as issues arose across the state, UNC Law School served as the headquarters for the war room. UNC Law Pro Bono volunteers manned phone calls from voters from sun-up to sun-down, equipping them with information, answering questions, and mobilizing election protection field workers to address voting administration violations statewide.
The terrain of the voting process has shifted dynamically with the recent passage of legislation requiring voters to show ID at the polls. The controversial voter ID law stipulates that all NC voters must show photo identification before voting, but it also includes several notable exceptions. For instance, those without ID are permitted to vote via provisional ballot if they provide their date of birth and last four digits of their social security number and
sign a form citing a “reasonable impediment” to obtaining an ID. Numerous other exceptions and requirements apply (see the Election Protection FAQ’s
), creating a seemingly endless array of possible answers to the question, “How do I vote?”
Yet that’s exactly the question the UNC Pro Bono team answered on Tuesday. Over the course of 14 consecutive hours, our volunteers fielded 881 phone calls from voters and poll volunteers with questions, complaints, and frustrations. In conjunction with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, Democracy NC, and the UNC Law Center for Civil Rights, the Pro Bono volunteers empowered North Carolinians from every corner of the state to overcome obstacles and exercise the fundamental right to vote.
The stories that came through the phone lines were both harrowing and uplifting.
Alex Snow, a 1L from Kernersville, NC, recalled her most memorable interaction, “A woman called because her son has MS and really wanted to vote, but didn't think he would be physically able to do it alone. She had received incorrect information that in order for him to vote he had to go by himself. When I told her that she would be able to go with him she was thrilled and very thankful for the hotline.”
La-Deidre Matthews, a 1L from Fayetteville, NC, reflected on her experience assisting voters, saying, “Collectively, I am impressed by the callers' dedication to vote. From a nurse that was afraid she wouldn't be able to make it to her precinct in time after a long shift, to a gentleman willing to visit both his old and new polling places (a considerable distance apart) to make sure his vote was counted. It is a great contrast to the "apathetic citizen" narrative I typically hear accusing people of not exercising their right to vote.”
Over the course of a long day, when Pro Bono volunteers could have otherwise joined their classmates on Spring Break tropical vacations, the disenchantment of apparent voter suppression gave way to a renewed faith in the people of the Old North State. The dedication of the election protection team was surpassed only by that of the voters themselves, whose indefatigable commitment to casting their ballots brought out the best of people’s qualities.
Tyler Abboud, a 1L from Denver, encapsulated the sentiment at the end of the day, recounting one of his conversations, “A guy called from Asheville who was concerned about the way the people running the polls were trained and whether or not they were asking the right questions about ID's. Though he was allowed to vote and ultimately had no problems, he was concerned that people would be turned away or discouraged if they were overly questioned. He was not a volunteer or anything, just a concerned voter. To me, the interaction was indicative of the selfless attitude I've seen in many North Carolinians and the overall call just left me feeling positive.”
The fight for equal access to the voting booth will be a long saga in the history of the state and the nation. However, the work of dedicated law students who empowered hundreds of individuals to exercise their right to vote on Tuesday is exactly the type of incremental change that will culminate in a brighter future for North Carolina voters.
Next stop, November.