As states around the nation have started the process of reevaluating their local election laws following a historic 2020 Presidential election, McCarter & English Social Justice Project law clerks Griselda Hodaj and Yari Reyes sat down to speak with Catherine (Cathy) Mohan about her experience protecting the vote and her ongoing commitment to pro bono and public service.
Throughout her time in practice, Cathy Mohan has been committed to pro bono and public service. From representing children in immigration court to helping people avoid homelessness, Cathy has always been involved in defending vulnerable individuals’ rights. In 2019, Cathy was part of a McCarter team that spent a week working with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Immigration Freedom Initiative to serve people held in immigration detention at the Stewart Detention Center in rural Georgia. For many reasons, it was no surprise that she packed her bags and went to Georgia again—twice—to help protect eligible voters’ rights to participate in the unprecedented 2020 presidential election and the Georgia runoffs. “As the 2020 presidential election approached, I knew I could not stay home,” Cathy said. “This was the most important election of my lifetime, and I wanted to do my part and make sure that every eligible voter’s voice was heard!”
Cathy went through rigorous training with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the Election Protection Coalition. She offered to go anywhere in the country, knowing she would be sent where there was a profound need for lawyers to protect the vote. She was sent to Gwinnett County, Georgia, one of the most diverse counties in the state, that had enough eligible voters that it could tip Georgia and, potentially, the presidential election. The County had significant voting rights issues and was flagged by the Justice Department as a high risk for voter intimidation. During her shift on Election Day, Cathy worked at a polling location in a church, answering questions about voting laws, helping voters who learned that their previous attempts to register to vote had been unsuccessful, providing information about “curing” ballots, and otherwise helping make sure voters had the opportunity to exercise their right to participate in the election. Understanding the sacrifices of time that many of the voters made to be there to vote, Cathy and her fellow volunteers packed and distributed snacks, water, and hygiene items to keep voters comfortable while they waited in line—six feet apart and masked—for hours.
One of Cathy’s most impactful moments happened when an older woman who never received her absentee ballot arrived at the polling location to vote in person but was at the wrong location, and the correct polling location was much further away. The problem was made worse by the fact that she walked to the polling location from her house and had no other means to get to the correct location. Seeing this dedication, a volunteer who admired her tenacity offered to personally drive her to the right polling location so that she could vote. The volunteer’s kindness allowed one more vote to be cast and further inspired the volunteers to continue to work. “One thing I learned from this experience,” Cathy says, “is that when you tell people they cannot vote because of a silly rule, they will work harder to vote.”
When she went back to volunteer again for the Georgia runoffs in January 2021, Cathy was sent to downtown Atlanta to work at a polling place that is notorious for long lines. Fortunately, and to Cathy’s surprise, the January election ran smoothly. There was an even bigger crowd of voters and volunteers, along with news outlets and a band, which helped make it feel like one big party. Good Samaritans were delivering food and supplies all day. In fact, things went so smoothly that Cathy’s main job was to watch voters’ dogs and bikes so they could enter the polling place to vote.
Cathy considers the experience of volunteering with the Election Protection Coalition to be one of the most important things she has done in her career as a lawyer. “Pro-bono work is needed now more than ever,” she says. “This is not a one-time fight to keep the polls open for American citizens—it will continue to be a struggle and challenge to protect every American’s right to vote.” Indeed, in late March 2021, Georgia enacted new legislation that, among other things, reduces by two-thirds the period of time for “early voting,” requires mail-in voters to include with their ballots documentation to verify their identities, shrinks voting hours to a 9 am-5 pm window, and prohibits anyone from providing food or water to voters waiting in line. Cathy notes, “I am saddened that, after historical turnouts in the November and January elections, which the Georgia Secretary of State called the most secure and trustworthy in the state’s history, the Georgia legislature decided to respond by passing legislation that restricts citizens’ rights to vote.” The work goes on, Cathy concludes: “This is precisely where the lawyers should be. Fighting to ensure that everyone’s voice is being heard, fighting to protect democracy.”
Cathy is one of the more than 30 McCarter & English lawyers who provided more than 1,000 hours of election-related pro bono services from September 2020 through January 2021.
Griselda Hodaj attends Rutgers Law School and Yari Reyes attends the UConn School of Law. They are law clerks with the McCarter & English Social Justice Project.