Thousands of volunteers to help Pa. voters, protect against intimidation on Election Day

Election workers, left, check in voters before they cast their ballots in the Pennsylvania primary in Philadelphia

Election workers, left, check in voters before they cast their ballots in the Pennsylvania primary in Philadelphia, Tuesday, June 2, 2020. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Ask us: What do you want to know about voting and the 2020 election?

Voter advocacy groups want Pennsylvanians to know their rights at the voting booth, and that there are lawyers on retainer to protect those rights.

Last week, the Pennsylvania Election Protection Coalition (PEPC) outlined ongoing steps to ensure that every vote is counted and that counties have the tools in place to make sure elections go smoothly, even as many precincts anticipate it will take days to count all the ballots.

The PEPC includes the ACLU, Make the Road Pennsylvania, and the League of Women Voters.

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They will station about 2,000 volunteers at voting sites in Pennsylvania to answer questions about election rules and to ensure all votes are counted.

Suzanne Almeida with Common Cause Pennsylvania said the goal is to unify the legal power of large groups across the state to offer help to those who otherwise might get blocked from casting a ballot.

“This is almost four times the amount of volunteers we had on the ground under the election protection banner in 2018,” Almeida said. “That is really a testament to the incredible work of the organizations to make sure we are coordinated and that all communities have access to election protection work.”

The Pennsylvania Election Protection Coalition is also staffing a toll-free hotline with lawyers to answer questions at 866-OUR-VOTE. Voters can also use it to report any intimidation or suppression efforts they see at the polls.

“It is being staffed by trained attorneys who are able to answer voter questions and then escalate more serious questions to an in-state command center,” Almeida said. “It will work to resolve more serious issues voters are encountering.”

Voter intimidation includes “aggressive behavior inside or outside the polling place, showing weapons, blocking entrances to polling places, disrupting polling lines, direct confrontation of voters, and being treated at the polls differently than others based on race, sexual preference, or gender identity,” said Salewa Ogunmefun, who manages the Center for Popular Democracy, a nonpartisan voter group.

PEPC wants people to know that intimidating voters at the polls has consequences.

“I’m confident that any kind of intimidating behavior is going to be shut down by the authorities,” said Vic Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “And ultimately if there’s a problem and it’s not being resolved, then we’ll go into court and try to get an appropriate order.”

Volunteers with PEPC believe it won’t matter that Pennsylvania counties are not allowed to count mail ballots until Election Day.

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“What matters is that counties count the votes transparently and as quickly as they can and meet the deadline to submit their county’s tally to the Department of State,” said Ray Murphy, state coordinator with Keystone Votes. “We all need to adjust our expectations that we will not have a formal, clear understanding of the winner in every county for at least a week.”

Many in Philadelphia are concerned about how Election Day in the city will look with Pennsylvania National Guard troops stationed in the city amid citywide unrest following the police killing of Walter Wallace Jr.

PEPC volunteers share those feelings of uncertainty.

“We don’t know how the uprisings in Philadelphia and the murder of Walter Wallace Jr. is going to affect the election,” Ogunmefun said.

“We experienced the primary under a stay-at-home order and a curfew in Philadelphia, and we did hear from voters who were trying to vote on Election Day that had been told that they were supposed to go home,” Ogunmefun explained. “But the polls were still open.”

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