Ami Gandhi explains how the 866-OUR-VOTE hotline can help you resolve voting issues on election day
Voters can encounter a wide range of obstacles on election day, from faulty equipment to intimidation or harassment. When challenges arise at the polls, voters can call a hotline, 866-OUR-VOTE, to speak with a legal volunteer—in many cases, a lawyer—to find a solution.
The hotline is part of a larger national, nonpartisan coalition of more than 100 local state, and national organizations called Election Protection, which is working to ensure everyone’s right to vote. The Voting Rights Project at the Chicago Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights runs the hotline’s call center in Chicago and monitors polling places in the city and suburban counties. Most of their in-person assistance takes place on the South and West Sides, where many voting issues and inquiries are reported.
Ami Gandhi, director of voting rights and civic empowerment at the Chicago Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, demystified some common misconceptions about voting and discussed how the hotline can be used to ensure one’s right to vote is met.
What are some of the most common reasons that voters call the 866-OUR-VOTE hotline?
Many voters call us wondering how, when and where to register to vote. Luckily, in Illinois we have many valuable ways that we can register to vote, including online voter registration, early voting registration, election day registration and, now, a new program called automatic voter registration. We also hear from voters every election who face more egregious issues such as an election judge or poll worker who’s serving as a barrier to a person’s right to vote; improper pressure from candidates or campaigns (electioneering); equipment malfunctions or delays; or voters who can’t access the type of ballot that they need. Unfortunately, every single election we also hear from voters who face intimidation at the polls. It’s not something that happens frequently in Illinois but it certainly still happens every election and we believe that should never be happening to any eligible voter.
We address issues affecting marginalized communities, so it makes sense for us to have a strong presence on the South and West sides. It’s where many of our calls originate. There are sometimes language barriers. Those communities are often our clients and partners for other areas of civil rights work. Unfortunately in this city and culture we live in, conditions at the polls are often racialized. It’s been part of the fabric of Chicago for many years. A variety of candidates and campaigns manipulate that for their benefit, and then it’s voters and communities who suffer.
What are the rules in Illinois for voting with a criminal record?
In Illinois, people can vote once they have completed a sentence even if they’re on probation or parole. When they were serving their sentence, it’s possible that their name was taken off of the rolls, which means that the person would need to re-register when the sentence is complete. People are also allowed to vote if they are in pretrial detention and haven’t been convicted or acquitted of a crime yet. In other words, most of the population in Cook County jail is awaiting trial, hasn’t had a trial yet, hasn’t been convicted yet and is fully eligible to vote.
How long before and after election day is the hotline staffed or available to voters?
The hotline is available year-round, though the vast majority of calls come around elections. It will go to voicemail on most days of the year but as it gets closer to the election and, of course, on election day there will be live assistance available. Usually it would be for the full hours that the polls are open (6 a.m. to 7 p.m.) and some time before and after that. But even a day or two before the election, live assistance is available and people can leave a voicemail and we would promptly get back to them.
Can you text the hotline?
No. There have been options before where voters could access us online and it wasn’t as effective as us being able to actually speak with the voter. We do, however, have frequently asked questions and other information online on 866ourvote.org
Can you describe the volunteer application process and how volunteers are trained for the hotline?
People can sign up through our website and 866ourvote.org so that they can be alerted once we have specific volunteer shifts and training in place. Volunteers have the option of signing up to help voters over the phone or to do in-person assistance through non-partisan poll-watching work. Any volunteer shift would be associated with a two-hour training that’s available in-person at a law firm in Chicago. Otherwise, volunteers have the option of receiving online training.
In addition to the training, there are specific materials that we distribute to all of our volunteers. There are also continuing legal education (CLE) credits available for people in the legal field who need to get that CLE credit in order to keep their legal license active. One important thing to remember is that you don’t have to be a full-time voting rights attorney in order to provide meaningful assistance to voters on election day.
The 866-OUR-VOTE hotline is also available in several languages besides English.
- For assistance in Spanish voters can call 888-Ve-Y-Vota
- For assistance in Arabic, voters can call 844-YALLA-US
- For assistance in Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Bengali, Urdu, Hindi or Tagalog, voters can call 888-API-VOTE
- Relay services are also available to help those who are hard of hearing to place calls to standard telephone users. Deaf voters and those with hearing impairments can reach out to Election Protection on Twitter (@866ourvote). Chicago Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights is working with the National Disability Rights Network to expand options for voters with disabilities.
This story was produced by City Bureau, a Woodlawn-based civic journalism lab. Find out more and get involved at www.citybureau.org.