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Voter rights hotline center buzzing nonstop on Election Day

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WASHINGTON — Phones were ringing off the hook Tuesday at the Election Protection hotline headquarters in Washington, D.C., where organizers said they expected to meet or surpass the 100,000 calls they logged on Election Day 2008.

Every few seconds, a confused caller would phone in for help with everything from finding a polling place to answering a question about new voter ID laws to complaining about long lines.

Almost 75,000 phone calls had flowed into the hotline call centers nationwide by 5:30 p.m. EST, with polls on the West Coast and in Alaska and Hawaii still hours away from closing.

Many of the calls came from California, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, Texas, Florida – and Arizona.

In Phoenix, Erandi Zamora was overseeing the incoming calls from Arizona voters.

“It’s been a busy day,” said Zamora of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which administers the election hotline. The committee is part of a coalition of groups organizing voter rights and voter education efforts, of which is the hotline is part.

The Phoenix call center, where Zamora was based, handled questions from Spanish-speaking voters while another call center in California processed the calls from English-speakers in Arizona. Whatever their language, Zamora said Arizona voters overall were having trouble finding their polling places.

“For some reason, folks are not showing up on the rolls,” she said.

Zamora said that could be due to clerical errors or because voter registration forms had not been processed in time for the election. She said hotline volunteers were advising Arizona voters who encounter issues to fill out provisional ballots, which are not ideal but “provide a recourse.”

“It’s a last resort,” she said.

Hotline officials said Arizona had a relatively high number of calls by mid-afternoon Tuesday, but the state was far from the biggest headache. Most of the problems were on the East Coast, particularly in New Jersey, which was still recovering from Hurricane Sandy.

Election Day in New Jersey was deemed a “catastrophe” by Barbara Arnwine, executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee. Voters there had trouble with the email ballots that were supposed to facilitate voting in the wake of Sandy, which displaced many state residents, forced the relocation of some polling places and caused severe damage just days before the election.

In Pennsylvania, voters in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia were reporting that they were not listed on voter rolls, despite having voted in 2008. Arnwine said Election Protection will look into the possibility that unlawful voter roll purges may be to blame there.

And in Ohio, calls about malfunctioning voting machines were adding to the already tense situation in that swing state.

The calls show that it’s time to modernize the American election system, Arnwine said. Until then, non-partisan groups like Election Protection would continue to safeguard voters’ rights, she said.

“We will remain vigilant. We will not turn our back on the American voter. We will be here until the polls close tonight,” Arnwine said Tuesday.

Arnwine said the effort Tuesday involved about 5,000 volunteers with legal training as well as another 2,000 grassroots volunteers who helped cover Election Protection hotlines and run field programs nationwide.

At the call center in Washington, volunteer lawyers and law students – most of them wearing the same black Election Protection T-shirts – worked in shifts to answer questions from confused voters.

Volunteers sat in fours at rectangular desks, each person equipped with a phone and a laptop computer. They tilted their heads to cradle phone receivers on their shoulders as they typed feverishly and chattered into the phones, the room buzzing with urgency and energy.

The volunteers were of all ages and backgrounds, but they were focused on one thing: making sure every voter’s ballot would count.

For Nadine Mompremier, a Howard University law student, volunteering at Election Protection was her way of doing her part.

“It was only right,” she said.