PHILADELPHIA (Oct. 31, 2008) -- Before coming to the University of Pennsylvania Law School, third-year student Lindsey Carson worked in several sub-Saharan African nations to increase citizen participation in the political process, including democratic elections.
"We worked to identify obstacles to full and free exercise of the right to vote in parliamentary elections, as well to enhance the ability of civil society groups to advocate within the political structure," she explained.
It is no surprise, then, that she has joined 10 other Penn Law students in "Watch the Vote 2008," a non-partisan election-monitoring effort arranged through Penn Law's Toll Public Interest Center.
"Watch the Vote 2008 has been a great way of standing by the notion that, regardless of who one votes for, we have a system that works, that we can believe in and have faith in," Carson said. "If voters continuously run into problems, that faith in our process and our public officials will be eroded."
Prior to Election Day, the 11 law students compiled information about localized election laws for key battleground states. On Election Day, they will use that information as a quick reference when helping Penn undergraduates respond to telephone calls about alleged voting problems. The students will provide callers with poll location addresses, transfer callers to their local election officials, and alert officials to potential violations of voters' rights.
The Penn Law students will spend Election Day stationed on Penn's campus, at CNN in New York, and at Manhattan law offices of Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady. They will provide legal research on issues of voter irregularity, including preparing briefs, seeking voter affidavits, working to preserve ballot access, and proposing remedies for problems that voters face. Seasoned election lawyers across the country will be standing by to take matters to court, if necessary.
The effort is part of election protection hotlines promoted by CNN (877.CNN.in.08), in collaboration with InfoVoter Technologies, and radio's "Tom Joyner Morning Show" (866.myvote1).
"Voters in my age group seem more excited than I've seen them," said third-year student Ofotsu Tetteh-Kujorjie, a native Ghanaian who came to the United States in the mid-1990s. "If you go back to the primaries, we potentially had the first woman nominee and we have the first black nominee. If you look around the world, there seems to be a realignment of power; it seems appropriate that these different presidential candidates emerged."
"Our students were eager to be active participants in this year's election," said Arlene Rivera Finkelstein, executive director of Penn Law's Toll Public Interest Center. "The opportunity with Watch the Vote 2008 was a great chance for students to participate not just on the micro level - working with individual voters who experienced problems at the polls - but also at a very macro level - identifying and addressing large scale problems occurring across the country. They will also have an ongoing role in litigation before and after the election that can shape voter access on a long term basis."
Penn Law students are required to complete 70 hours of pro bono work in order to graduate.
Tetteh-Kujorjie, who is not eligible to vote in the U.S., thought Watch the Vote would be a great way to participate in the election process. "I'm interested in getting a sense of how the American system works. I have a high curiosity about the problems people may face at the voting booth," Tetteh-Kujorjie explained. "I'll also be interested in seeing how efficacious the legal system is in resolving issues that may arise."
Carson, a native of Rosemont, PA, has been surprised by her research of Ohio voting laws. "What's amazed me so far, as I've been researching Ohio, is that U.S. elections are so localized. You can have two counties next door to each other, each with different voting procedures and mechanisms for getting a paper ballot. It would probably surprise people that, even as we complain about low voter turnout, our system may not be able to accommodate all voters if a majority of registered voters came to the polls."
The hotlines expect to receive as many as one million calls on Election Day.