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Chhaya Malik’s first court argument is probably seared in her memory for good. The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights attorney was admitted to the California State Bar less than 11 months ago, but Election Day found her in Toledo federal court fighting to get a temporary restraining order against the Ohio secretary of state. “I argued for the first time, I won, and Fox News channel was outside,” Malik said Tuesday night from Cleveland. Malik was part of the legal team that persuaded U.S. District Judge David Katz to order Ohio election officials to issue provisional ballots to anyone who showed up at the polls asserting their eligibility to vote — even if others at the polls questioned it. For Malik and the rest of the team — Robert Rubin, also of the Lawyers’ Committee, and Kiran Jain and Leigh Linder, two Bingham McCutchen lawyers from San Francisco and Los Angeles — it was the kind of last-minute scramble to the courthouse that scores of California legal teams had prepared for during this election cycle. Kelly Dermody, a partner at Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, said her plane to Arizona on Monday “was packed with California lawyers.” Malik’s experience was not the rule. For most California lawyers who traveled out of state to volunteer, things appeared much smoother by the time polls were closing around the country. “When you come down here, you get the sense that you’re going to get into these huge arguments and really advocate for people,” said Christina Wheeler, a senior associate in Bingham McCutchen’s San Francisco office who volunteered for Election Protection in Florida. But Wheeler spent the bulk of her day in Miami-Dade County answering questions and solving small problems. “You still feel good about it, but it wasn’t as sexy as you originally thought.” Although the work was mundane at times, lawyers said they were happy to do it. “I shouldn’t say mundane because getting people to [vote in] the right places is very important,” said Melinda Haag, a partner at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe in San Francisco who worked with John Kerry’s campaign in Iowa. Though many volunteers never got near a courthouse, several became involved in smaller skirmishes, especially in battleground states where their ranks were concentrated in anticipation of problems. Lawyers said much of their work was connected to long lines and impatience created by the record voter turnout, and to election officials’ confusion over how to treat provisional ballots. Some lawyers also said they had to fend off challenges to voter eligibility, mostly when workers demanded identification that wasn’t necessary. Haag, stationed at Kerry’s campaign headquarters in Des Moines, was armed with two cell phones, a computer and her Blackberry, and answered questions from lawyers and other campaign workers scattered in the field. She started at about 5:30 a.m. and answered about 250 phone calls throughout the day, she said. Many of the questions were from other volunteers who wanted to make sure that election officials were obeying the law. The officials sometimes had to be confronted with statutes to get them to conform. “It’s a pretty civilized state,” said Haag, a former assistant U.S. attorney. “When there were issues, they were resolved.” The Republicans also had lawyers on the ground. Arlene Nielsen, formerly with Mill Valley-based Nielsen, Merksamer, Parrinello, Mueller & Naylor, helped monitor Florida. Nielsen, who is married to senior partner Vigo “Chip” Nielsen Jr., doesn’t practice law in California anymore, but volunteered because she really wanted to see Bush win. She said the Republicans offered to send her to Ohio, but she paid to fly herself to Florida so she could use her bilingual abilities. Nielsen, who was born in Mexico, said many Floridians speak a mixture of English and Spanish. Like other volunteers, Nielsen started on Monday, during early voting. Although people still complained about long lines Tuesday, Nielsen believes the lines would have been even worse without the early ballots. And, also like her Democratic colleagues, Nielsen said a lot of her work was making sure elections officials simply followed the law. “If the rules were stated and enforced, it would be so much easier,” Nielsen said. “I found if I didn’t say anything, clerks wouldn’t enforce.” At about 1:30 a.m. Wednesday on the East Coast, Thelen Reid & Priest associate Patrick Ryan was enjoying a moment of celebration after two sleepless days volunteering for the Bush campaign. “People are just overjoyed, hugging,” Ryan reported from a victory party in Florida. As the results rolled in across the country Tuesday night, attorneys weren’t ready to eliminate the possibility of a litigious battle to the finish line. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a suit late Tuesday afternoon, claiming that nearly 20,000 absentee ballots in Florida weren’t mailed until last weekend. The suit sought to extend the deadline for returning those ballots to Nov. 12, the same date overseas ballots are due. Malik, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights attorney in Ohio, said early Tuesday evening that she was scheduled to return to California today, but wouldn’t count on it until her feet were on the plane. “We managed to secure a right to cast a provisional ballot, but I would not be surprised now for litigation about how to count those ballots,” she said. “It kind of depends to what extent the counting issue comes up.” Two Bay Area attorneys working in Reno for another nonpartisan voter protection group came out of the experience with very different impressions. Judging by word of mouth, “there was a significant amount of variation from one polling station to another,” said Lieff Cabraser associate Nirej Sekhon. At his polling station, everything seemed to go OK, he said. But Anita Sinha, a staff attorney at the National Immigration Law Center in Oakland who volunteered with the same group, said IDs became a heated issue, with Republican monitors challenging new voters whose addresses didn’t match their driver’s licenses. After some delay, she said, the people were allowed to cast ballots. There was also a contingent of Bay Area criminal defense attorneys who traveled to various states. George Cotsirilos Jr. of San Francisco’s Cotsirilos & Campisano was in Volusia County in Florida, where he visited a handful of polling places. In several instances he had to insist on people’s right to cast provisional ballots. “There [was] a climate of real concern amongst Democrats and minority voters worried they were going to get hosed,” Cotsirilos said. Another Bay Area firm, Emeryville’s Arguedas, Cassman & Headley, gave its lawyers time off to work on the Kerry-Edwards campaign. Associate Julie Salamon ended up in Cleveland, where she stood in the rain for 6 1/2 hours monitoring polls for Election Protection. Salamon said she was the only lawyer at the polling place. She also found people running into resistance in filing provisional ballots. “It was odd,” she said. “I was quite disturbed that [the elections official] did not know basic election law.” Even with the troubles, Salamon said she was encouraged to see people coming out in the bad weather. “It was cold, it was wet, but the turnout was amazing,” she said. Although both parties had armies of lawyers working the polls and ready to fight in court, some election watchers complained about all the J.D.s. Haag, a former assistant U.S. attorney, said she was tired of political commentators who appeared on television to say that the armies of lawyers were just trying to muck up the election and stir up trouble. “Lawyers were out there trying to make sure the laws were complied with,” she said.

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