Jewish World Review
http://www.jewishworldreview.com | (KRT) COLUMBUS, Ohio In a cramped corner of the state Democratic Party headquarters here, David Sullivan and seven other full-time volunteers are franticly dialing lawyers to ask them to monitor Election Day polling places.
At a union office across town, another Democratic attorney is helping design a form for use outside Ohio polls that will record the identities of voters prevented from successfully casting a ballot on Nov. 2.
And in a cozy law office near Ohio State University there was last-minute research under way earlier this week as lawyers prepared to file a lawsuit challenging the state's top election official on a balloting decision he made.
Like personal injury lawyers scouring an accident-prone intersection for the next collision, thousands of attorneys across the nation are gearing up for the first presidential contest since Bush vs. Gore and the Florida meltdown of 2000.
The legal work is taking place to varying degrees in about 20 states where the race is expected to be the closest. Ohio and Florida, both large states where it's now exceptionally tight, have so far received the most attention.
Even as a new lawsuit was filed in Ohio last week, other cases covering electronic voting machines, voter registration, polling place identification and different election matters are pending before courts in Florida, New Mexico and elsewhere.
The unprecedented level of pre-election lawyering comes amid new and untested laws, surges in voter registration, and poll workers already stressed by the need to learn how to deal with new ballots and voting equipment.
While no one is predicting the perfect storm of election mishaps and razor-slim margins that resulted in the last presidential election being determined by the U.S. Supreme Court, the potential for extensive court activity exists.
Democrats and Sen. John Kerry, vowing not to be caught off guard again, have crafted a legal response plan that includes five "SWAT teams" ready to fly anywhere a recount or other legal challenges seem warranted.
Legal command centers will be set up in some states, including Ohio and Florida, where top election lawyers will be armed with a variety of pre-drafted pleadings, should the decision be made to seek an emergency court hearing somewhere.
And thousands of lawyers and other observers will mobilize to watch for problems at county courthouses and polling places, especially those in low-income neighborhoods where Democrats say voters were more often turned away from the polls in 2000 because of registration technicalities.
Republicans, meanwhile, are placing lawyers on call in battleground states, where coveted electoral votes could, theoretically, be determined by which side is best prepared to prove that voters have or have not been disenfranchised.
President Bush's campaign has said it is targeting about 30,000 precincts in 17 states, places seen as key to victory or where past election problems have arisen. Lawyers, law students and others will watch those precincts or be on call there.
But it's here in Ohio that experts believe there is the greatest potential for another Florida, primarily because more than two-thirds of voters will use punch-card ballots similar to those that produced the infamous hanging chad of 2000.
"Ohio is ground zero," said Daniel Tokaji, an Ohio State University law professor who studies election procedures. "We are one of the last bastions of the punch-card ballot and there has been a lot of controversy relating to provisional balloting."
Several of Ohio's largest counties have already declared mutiny against the state's top election official and his recent ruling that provisional ballots must not be given to voters who appear at the wrong polling place.
Provisional ballots - new to some states, but not Ohio - allow voters with questions surrounding their registrations to cast special ballots that are reviewed after the election to determine whether they came from legitimate voters.
Ohio Democrats and a coalition of unions and voter-rights groups have already filed separate lawsuits challenging the provisional ballot decision of Republican Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell.
A provisional voting lawsuit is also pending in Florida, where the state Supreme Court this week agreed to soon hear a challenge to restrictions similar to those Blackwell has ordered in Ohio.
While reforms have resolved some problems witnessed in the 2000 election, they've created others, leaving this election still susceptible to undercounting, over-counting, miscounting and some voters who won't be counted at all.
"Whenever you have confusion in a legal setting, that's what lawyers thrive on," said Richard Siehl, a Republican election lawyer in Columbus who is on call should he be needed. "When people make mistakes, that's what results in litigation."
The American Civil Liberties Union has already challenged Florida Secretary of State Glenda Hood for a decision by her office to urge local election officials to discard voter registration forms where new voters failed to check a box indicating their citizenship.
And Blackwell, who has made several controversial pre-election decisions that have angered Democrats, acknowledged earlier this week that he expects Ohio will see "lawsuits fly," if the election outcome is close.
Until last week, Blackwell maintained that voter registrations needed to be on thick, 80-pound-weight paper for filing purposes, meaning the registration forms some residents clipped from local newspapers or downloaded on the Internet wouldn't have been accepted.
Democrats maintain some county election offices may have thrown out some registrations that weren't on the heavier weight paper, before Blackwell reversed his position. His spokesman declined to respond to repeated interview requests.
There is also concern among Democrats that Republicans will use a provision in Ohio law that allows "challengers" to review voter registration information at polling places. They fear the challenges could slow election lines and ultimately discourage some Democrats from voting.
Nearly a month before the election, Democratic lawyers from white-shoe law firms in New York, Washington, San Francisco and elsewhere are already flooding into states like Ohio and Florida.
"I'm in Ohio because I think this is going to be where the election is decided," said Sullivan, who is taking two months vacation to work as the "voter protection" director for the Democratic Party in Ohio.
In 2000, Sullivan spent 24 days in Florida - mostly Palm Beach County_working on Al Gore's behalf after the last presidential election, when he also took leave from his job as legal counsel to the state senate in Massachusetts.
Union and voting-rights coalitions in many of the battleground states are also finding and training volunteer lawyers. The leader of one such group said he's received roughly 15 unsolicited calls from lawyers outside Ohio interested in volunteering.
"We're hearing about so many groups doing this work that we may have three groups in three different colored shirts all at one polling place," said R. Sean Grayson, a labor lawyer who is co-chairman of the Ohio Voter Protection Project.
Grayson's group plans to focus its efforts in Ohio's 12 largest cities and has specifically identified about 400 polling places to watch.
Although volunteers are doing much of the legal work, Kerry's campaign has started raising money to prepare for recounts, telling potential donors it doesn't want Democrats to be "outgunned, out-manned and outmatched" again.
Barry Richard, a Florida lawyer hired to lead the Bush campaign's legal defense team in 2000, expects his phone may ring again this November.
"I think there is likely to be litigation for any number of reasons," Richard said. "Both camps are highly suspicious of everything and they are not going to hesitate if they think there is something that could affect the results."
The state is also on guard. Elections officials asked prosecutors Thursday to investigate possible voter fraud involving 25 registration forms with apparently bogus addresses, including some that match a public park, a parking lot and a utilities building, the Associated Press reported in Tallahassee.
Two of the forms were filled out by individuals at the Duval County elections office and 23 were submitted by people who registered voters independently. Officials didn't immediately know who turned in the independent registrations, said Erin Moody, a spokeswoman for the elections office.
Four years ago in Florida, even when it became clear that confusing ballots were causing significant problems, nothing was immediately done.
Steve Zack, a Miami lawyer who is lead counsel for the Kerry campaign in Florida, said each of the state's counties has a legal captain who has met with the supervisor of elections to discuss ballot design and recount procedures.
"There is no issue that would effect the election that we are not looking at," Zack said. "And there will be no voter who goes to vote on Election Day who will not be able to have quick access to counsel."
When recruiting lawyers to battleground states, Florida has been the most popular destination. The legal director for People for the American Way said his group has recruited 600 people from the San Francisco-area alone.
Here in Columbus, the director of the Franklin County Board of Elections, said he is working with the local sheriff's department to make sure lawyers and others don't disrupt polling places_or his office.
"We've always been able to handle it by ourselves in the past," Matthew Damschroder said. "But when you are looking at the national and even international scrutiny, it causes us to want to check and double-check."
Damschroder said he expects lawyers from the political parties and outside groups will set up shop in his lobby on Election Day. "I'm going to have my lawyers on site as well," he said.
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