Voter Hot Line Upgraded for Election

With the Nov. 4 presidential election less than four weeks away, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law is gearing up its IT systems to handle an expected 150,000 Election Day telephone calls on voting-related issues to its toll-free hot line.

The Washington-based nonprofit group created a basic telephone hot line -- 1-866-OUR-VOTE -- four years ago for the 2004 election, using a system of linked phone lines to connect voters with volunteer lawyers and paralegals.

Because it used traditional phone architecture, some of the hot line offices had an overflow of calls that couldn't be handled quickly enough, while others had excess capacity and volunteers who were available but couldn't be reached by voters. The problem was that the system had been set up manually and once created, it couldn't be quickly changed to adjust to incoming call patterns.

Jon Greenbaum, director of the committee's Voting Rights Project, said the group needed to find a better way to handle the Election Day crush of expected calls and help more voters deal with problems as they cast their ballots.

For the 2006 off-year elections, the group brought in Angel.com, a McLean, Va.-based call center and interactive voice response system vendor. Using Angel.com's Web-based Virtual Call Center application, the Election Day hot line can be monitored in real-time online and reconfigured instantly to re-route calls to available hot line volunteers across the country.

The new system was used for a host of big state primary elections this year and worked well, Greenbaum said.

Now the group is preparing for what is expected to be a huge Election Day turnout nationwide, where a mix of electronic touch-screen voting machines, optically scanned paper ballots, hand-counted paper ballots and old-style mechanical lever machines will be used by voters to cast their ballots.

The calls come in on issues such as an electronic voting machine that isn't leaving a paper trail, a ballot that isn't accepted in an optical scan machine or a complaint from a voter who is not allowed to cast a ballot because of a registration issue.

The hot line volunteers "solve problems on Election Day and before Election Day," Greenbaum said. The call centers, which are set up in lawyers' offices and other available spaces across the nation, range from several volunteers to hundreds in each facility.

When calls come in from voters, their information is put into a database that is updated in real time for the group's legal team to analyze. The use of the Angel.com Web application "changes it all by giving us flexibility," Greenbaum said. "We can make changes on the fly."

To set up the system, the law firms and others providing donated office space give numbers for the participating telephone lines to Angel.com, which then sets up the system architecture using its Web-based interface. The system works with standard or voice-over-IP phone infrastructures.

"Now, if we have a call center in D.C. taking calls from Virginia that can handle 40 calls at once -- but 100 calls come in -- they can route those calls anywhere else" to better handle them, he said. "In 2004, [using the old system] we could only have one location serve as a backup, so if that backup location also got overwhelmed, we were stuck."

The software also allows the group to add or reduce phone lines as needed across the country, depending on call volumes. "It ends up being this huge schematic," Greenbaum said.

Another major change over 2004 is that the Angel.com application allows callers to leave a voice mail, which is saved as a .WAV file and e-mailed to the appropriate call center for a response. With the old system in 2004, standard phone answering machines quickly filled, and many callers were unable to leave messages.

The hot line currently receives about 2,000 calls a day, but that's expected to spike on Election Day to about 150,000 calls.

The system will allow 750 calls to be answered at any one time, while another 750 calls will be in a holding queue. "There will be times on Election Day where that capacity won't be enough, where 2,000 people might be calling in at one time, but it's what we can afford," Greenbaum said.

The Lawyers' Committee is the lead group for more than 100 local, state and national organizations that are part of the national, nonpartisan Election Protection coalition, which also includes the People for the American Way, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Verified Voting Foundation, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Our Faith Our Vote.

The coalition, which was created after the controversial 2000 presidential elections, aims to ensure that all voters have an equal opportunity to participate in the political process. A telephone election hot line for Spanish-speaking voters is also available at 1-888-Ve-Y-Vota.

Mike Zirngibl, CEO of Angel.com, said his company's product allows users to set up whatever kinds of call systems they need.

Using a software-as-a-service model, Angel.com runs two data centers to support its approximately 1,600 customers, Zirngibl said.

For the Election Protection project, he said, such a system makes this kind of one-day event possible compared to creating centralized, traditional, hard-wired call centers. "You'd look at investments of several million dollars that pretty much you'd have to throw away the next day," he said.

In 2006, the election project handled about 25,000 phone calls from voters on Election Day, he said.

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