Four years after Ohio's near meltdown on Election Day, state officials had a novel idea: Put all the political lawyers in one room and ask them to work things out in advance this time.
Good luck with that.
"Lawsuits are unavoidable," said Doug Chapin, director of electionline.org, a nonpartisan advocacy group. "If it's close and either side believes that some evil is about to happen, they're going to do something about it."
That usually means a trip to the courthouse, often at the last minute. And in this extremely close race for the White House, there are at least 7,000 volunteer lawyers ready to deploy to key states, armed with injunctions covering issues great and small. And that's just the Democrats. The Republicans won't say how many they have on hand.
In one of those battleground states, Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner and Attorney General Nancy Rogers ushered more than 75 legal experts into a meeting at the statehouse last month and tried to convince them it would only harm voters if they filed the same flurry of last-minute lawsuits that kept the state in legal limbo until the end in 2004.
Sore points have already surfaced but have yet to be litigated this time around: increasingly popular early voting and whether it's susceptible to fraud, and an upcoming five-day period in Ohio when folks can register and vote on the same day (Republicans say that's also vulnerable to fraud).
Ever since Democrats and Republicans were caught flat-footed in Florida eight years ago, both parties have added legions of lawyers to their political arsenals -- litigators who've filed scores of lawsuits challenging every voting nuance from requiring photo identification to Election Day weather conditions.
Along the way, they've also irked local election directors and activists who say they've disrupted voting and added to long lines by raising frivolous challenges to procedures and arguing with poll workers. Worse, say some elections officials, are campaigns that engage in "caging" -- sending registered mail to voters, and making lists from letters that come back undelivered. The campaigns then turn those lists over to elections officials and request a purging of voter registration lists.
"I'm not going to name names, but there are folks out there who want to make it more difficult for people to vote," said Dan Tokaji, a law professor at Ohio State University. As an example, he pointed to (Republican) efforts to purge Wisconsin voter registration databases of names that don't match up with other state records.
But having Republican and Democratic attorneys at the polls is not necessarily a bad thing, he said. "To understand election rules, you almost have to be a lawyer."
More than 30 election suits are pending in states including Ohio, Georgia, Texas and Florida, according to the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University. Dozens more have been settled or dismissed.
Such lawsuits are not a new weapon, but their usage has been thrown into hyper-drive since Florida in 2000.
According to research by Richard Hasen, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, an average of about 96 election lawsuits were annually filed before 2000. That number has jumped to an average of 230 cases per year, with the most filed regarding the 2004 election, he said.
Election reform was supposed to increase faith in the nation's myriad election systems. "Things have not gotten better," said Hasen. "Voter confidence -- it's gotten worse. There's been a lot of money spent on machines that end up being abandoned. There's been more litigation. We want the people to finalize the election, not the courts."
The legal armies are made up of party loyalists, in the rank and file, and top political strategists at the very top. "These people are true believers," he said. "They are willing to do whatever they can to help their party."
During the recount in Florida in 2000, attorneys and political strategists screamed at each other and at beleaguered ballot counters over how to qualify -- or disqualify -- punch-cards bearing hanging, dimpled or pregnant chads.
The high-pitched fight over low-tech voting systems devolved into pushing and shoving before ultimately landing at the U.S. Supreme Court, which stopped the recount, giving the election to George W. Bush.
The Justice Department pledged Monday to send election monitors around the country to help ensure access to the polls in November, even while acknowledging its limited power to enforce election laws. Civil rights groups fear that an unprecedented minority voter turnout due to Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama might be countered by efforts to intimidate or otherwise block people who seek to cast their ballots.
Neither Obama's campaign nor Republican John McCain's strategists answered e-mails and phone messages seeking details about their election lawyers. In response to phone messages left for top Republican lawyer Todd Steggerda, a McCain spokeswoman sent an e-mail saying the candidate had legal volunteers in each state "to ensure that every qualified citizen has a full opportunity to vote, and that only validly cast ballots are counted."
Obama general counsel Bob Bauer sent a mass e-mailing last month to supporters, seeking volunteer attorneys and law students. "We can't afford to let our guard down. The stakes could not be higher. This election has to be different," he wrote.
The Obama Voter Protection Program is working closely with the Democratic Party, which earlier said it's spent three years amassing some 7,000 lawyers. Early last month, attorneys began deploying. Like the McCain campaign, the Democrats promise to have legal counsel in all 50 states.
In 2004, Bauer helped assemble a similar task force for John Kerry that boasted as many as 10,000 lawyers. Many were dispatched to Ohio, where malfunctions and insufficient numbers of touch-screen machines short-circuited tempers and caused lines that stretched for hours.
Republican and Democratic lawyers fought in federal court right down to Nov. 4 over the right to challenge voters at polling places. Republicans said confronting would-be voters discouraged fraud. Democrats said such challenges were designed to intimidate minorities.
On Election Day, a federal appeals court sided with Republicans, saying they could place monitors inside precincts to challenge the eligibility of voters. But a deluge of monitors didn't appear.
Times have changed in Ohio. Embattled GOP Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell is gone, replaced by Brunner, a Democrat, who has banned campaign attorneys from challenging voters at the polls -- and has tried bringing them together at the statehouse meeting.
In directives posted online before the March 4 primary, Brunner announced that campaign lawyers and poll monitors must register 11 days before the election, and they are not allowed to challenge voters. Only poll workers may make such inquiries.
At the August meeting, Brunner said most of the attorneys represented third-party candidates, including Libertarians and the Green Party, and advocacy groups such as the League of Women Voters.
But McCain attorney Steggerda had a specific question, Brunner said. He wanted guidelines on how to extend voting hours on Election Day. Obama's lawyers ended up in federal court during the primary to keep precincts open late in Cuyahoga County, where ice storms wreaked havoc with traffic during rush hour and beyond.
To keep that issue out of the legal system on Nov. 4, Brunner said she plans to bring campaign lawyers together again, and try to get them to agree on a process.
"In the end," she said, "we're trying to protect the voter."
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