Ohio or Bust

Chris Asta ’14, co-political director of the NYU Law Democrats, helped organize a group of Law School students who traveled to Ohio to help staff a voter protection hotline, get out the vote, and monitor polling places in the days leading up to the 2012 election. Here are his views on the election and the work he and his fellow NYU Law students did, in his own words. You can read more about the Law School community’s involvement in the election here.

Students fielding calls
NYU Law students crammed into a small union hall to field over 25,000 calls over the course of three days.

The NYU Law Democrats worked for weeks to put together a trip for NYU Law students to do voter protection work for the Obama campaign in Ohio. Everything looked good as the pieces began falling into place.

And then Superstorm Sandy hit.

Suddenly, our best-laid plans began to crumble. The days after the storm were spent reworking plans based on post-Sandy New York—without power, without subway access. In the meantime, the campaign informed us that because our group was so big, the only place they would be able to house us would be on the floor of a local church’s basement, and that we would need to bring our own bedding: sleeping bags, air mattresses, etc. We would be going from no power and no showers in New York, to no beds and no showers in Ohio.

Then on Friday evening, less than 24 hours before we were set to leave, we got some more news from the campaign: the vans they had reserved for us were no longer available. Because of the gas shortage in New York City, the van rental companies had vans, but they couldn’t find any gas to fill them with, and so none could be rented until the gas shortage eased. It looked like all our hard work might be for naught, since without the vehicles, we had no way of getting to Ohio.

Students at arena
Taking a short break from managing President Obama's last campaign rally at the Nationwide Arena in Columbus for a quick photo-op. (Not pictured: Jay-Z, Bruce Springsteen, President Obama.)

So we scrambled and learned that, fortunately, a group of Law Democrats was also heading out to Ohio from Harvard Law. They generously agreed to rent three extra vans in Boston. The NYU Law group would somehow make our way to Grand Central with our clothes, bedding, air mattresses, and other sundries on our backs, and would take the Metro North, which had recently started running again, to White Plains. The Harvard students would meet us there and hand off our three vans, which we would then drive to Ohio. As far as plans went, it was about as difficult and arduous as we could possibly come up with, but given the circumstances, it seemed our only option.

It says so much about the dedication and grit of the group of NYU Law students that we made our way to Ohio, despite all the hurdles and obstacles. We spent most of our time in Columbus working a voter protection hotline. Fifty cell phones sat in a small room at a union hall in Columbus, and our job was to answer the phones and help the voters who called. Often voters simply wanted to know if they were registered, where they should go to vote, what time the polls were open. But others needed more help. Some had recently moved, and because of Ohio’s election laws, this set into motion a labyrinthine process of how and where they could vote and with what sort of ballot (most Ohioans who had recently relocated were forced to vote with a provisional ballot under Ohio election law). When there was trouble at the polls—lines that were longer than they should have been, poll workers who were giving out misleading or incorrect information, voters who were being told they weren’t registered when in fact they were—we were the front line. We saw to it that all of those voters had the opportunity to exercise their right to vote, and ensured that no one who reached out to us would be disenfranchised if we could help it.

Students answering calls from voters
Nick Melvoin '14 and Alex Stein '13 answer calls from voters, helping to ensure that each caller's right to vote is protected.

This voter protection hotline was under the auspices of the Obama campaign. But our job wasn’t to make sure that those Ohioans who wanted to vote for the president could vote, and those who instead supported Governor Romney couldn’t. Our job was to enfranchise every voter who called in. We did that, under the Obama banner, because the Democratic Party wants every American to vote. We understand that America is stronger and healthier when a diverse and comprehensive swath of the population makes their preferences known. We don’t cancel early voting days; we expand them. We don’t scare away voters with harsh ID laws; we give them rides to the polls. We don’t purge voters from the voting rolls; we do all we can to expand the number of individuals who can exercise their constitutional voting rights. The voter protection work we did during our time in Ohio was an integral part of that enfranchisement. As a soon-to-be lawyer, I have a substantial ability to be a part of that enfranchisement, as well as a substantial responsibility to use my skills, knowledge, and training to that end.

Ultimately, NYU Law students managed the bulk of the 50 voter protection phone lines that fielded over 25,000 phone calls during our four days in Ohio—with 16,000 of them coming on Election Day alone. Each one of those people we spoke with was someone we individually helped vote. Some surely would have managed without our help, but many others would not have. Our impact on the election was dramatic, and we took great pride in the work we were accomplishing. Beyond just working the hotline, we gave rides to the polls to voters who couldn’t get there on their own, knocked on doors across Columbus encouraging people to vote, and worked as poll watchers. Perhaps most excitingly, some of our volunteers staffed the big rally President Obama held the day before the election in Columbus. They were only a few feet away from the stage as Jay-Z and Bruce Springsteen performed. Some of them met (now reelected) Senator Sherrod Brown and former Governor Ted Strickland, and they watched President Obama give one of his last stump speeches of the campaign. 

In the end, NYU Law had more than 100 volunteers working to reelect President Obama. In addition to the 43 of us who travelled to Ohio, 65 volunteers spent Election Day in Pennsylvania, and a handful of others protected the vote in Virginia. Many others spent countless hours on campus making Election Day phone calls to critical swing states across the nation. As proud as I am that so many of us were willing and able to travel to or contact swing states across the country to make our mark on this election, I’m even prouder to study among a student body and at an institution so supportive of our ability and desire to do so.