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Campaigns deploy armies of lawyers in Florida to watch for voting problems

By Vanessa Blum | South Florida Sun-Sentinel
October 31, 2008

With a slender margin separating Republican Sen. John McCain and Democratic Sen. Barack Obama, battalions of lawyers are converging on Florida to handle any disputes at the polls and run to court if necessary.

The unspoken backdrop to this legal blitz is the 2000 election showdown in Florida, where Democrats and Republicans faced off for five weeks in state and federal courtrooms in a titanic struggle of attorneys and legal briefs that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

That time, the Republicans won: by 537 votes in Florida's official tally, and 5-4 among the black-robed justices in Washington.

It was the first time a U.S. presidential election had been contested in court. It may not be the last: Jonathan Turley, an election law expert at George Washington University, predicted a "flurry of lawsuits" in swing states like Florida and Ohio if the margin of victory next Tuesday is slim.

One reason so many lawyers have been deployed, he said, is to assemble any evidence of irregularities in voting or tallying that could be used in court.

"Problems need to be identified very quickly and documented to preserve the basis for a challenge," Turley said. "The priority of both the McCain and Obama campaigns and the reason to have boots on the ground is to waste as little time as possible."

Both the Democrats and Republicans say any lawsuits, like those filed by the campaigns of Al Gore and George W. Bush eight years ago, would be a last resort.

On Tuesday, an estimated 5,000 lawyers and law students supporting Obama will fan out across Florida to monitor polling sites and assist voters, especially in minority, elderly and heavily Democratic precincts. The volunteers supporting Obama will be wearing baseball caps tinted Democratic blue.

"The object is to make sure that every voter, Republican and Democrat alike, who shows up at the polls on Election Day is able to vote," said Broward attorney Charles Lichtman, in charge of Florida Democrats' legal effort. "We're there to problem-solve, not to litigate."

Republican lawyers, though gearing up more discreetly, say they will have poll watchers — 500 in Broward alone — to act as their campaign's "eyes and ears" and report irregularities to party headquarters.

Already the legal squabbling has begun, with Republicans complaining the high-profile Democratic presence may intimidate or confuse some voters.

"The best thing would be if they would just get out of the staff's way and let them do their job, instead of trying to turn the polling place into a courtroom," said Hayden Dempsey, the Tallahassee-based chairman of Lawyers for McCain in Florida.

Republicans also object that the Democrats' headgear, which says "Florida Voting Rights Attorney," could leave the mistaken impression that they are officials.

"As a voter, how do you have any way of knowing this person is going to give you legitimate advice?" said Katie Gordon, a spokeswoman for the Republican Party of Florida.

The Democrats counter that they will interact with voters only outside polling places, which is allowed by state law. Of special concern to them is implementation of Florida's "no match, no vote" law, which took effect Sept. 8 after numerous court challenges. The measure requires identifying information on new voter registrations to match government records. If there is no match, the person can't vote.

In Broward, if no match can be found, voters may cast provisional ballots to be verified later.

Advocacy groups expect the law to have a greater effect on groups that tend to vote Democratic. As part of a special effort to assist Hispanic voters, Democrats recruited hundreds of bilingual attorneys to be at polling places on Election Day.

Many lawyers going on duty next Tuesday are veterans of the 2000 recount battle and consider themselves wiser for the experience.

Lichtman, who led the Democrats' legal team in Broward, cited the infamous butterfly ballot used in Palm Beach County in 2000 as a lesson learned. The ballot's design led some Democrats to complain they had cast votes for the wrong candidate.

"If we had lawyers on the ground, we would have explored those reports immediately," Lichtman said.

Republican attorney Edward Pozzuoli, who is coordinating poll watchers in Broward, said he hoped attorneys wouldn't make things more complicated than necessary on Election Day.

"Whatever the votes are, let them be counted. Whatever the result is, it is," he said. "The number of lawyers that a campaign has should not be indicative of who wins."

http://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/local/broward/sfl-flblawyers1031sboct31,0,2028488.story
 
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