New York Times
POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Nov 02, 2012
CLEVELAND » Thousands of lawyers from both presidential campaigns will enter polling places Tuesday in a kind of Spy vs. Spy with one central goal: tracking their opponents and, if need be, initiating legal action.
The lawyers will note how poll workers behave, where voters are directed, if intimidation appears to be under way, whether lines are long. And they will report up a chain of command where decisions over court action will be made at headquarters in Chicago and Boston.
This will go on in every battleground state — including Wisconsin, Virginia, Florida, even Pennsylvania — but it will be most focused in Ohio and especially in Greater Cleveland, which is heavily Democratic and where many people believe history teaches a simple lesson: The more votes cast here, the likelier President Barack Obama is to win.
As the persuasion effort winds down, campaigns are focused on getting their supporters to vote and getting those votes counted.
The result has been a mass mobilization of lawyers. The Democrats will have 600 lawyers in action here in Cuyahoga County and 2,500 across the state, their organizers say. They have been holding training sessions, grouping legal volunteers into workers and supervisors. The Republicans have much smaller teams — about 70 in this county — and will rely more on surrogates, including nonlawyer poll workers. Each side says the other cannot be trusted and, given the likelihood of a tight presidential race, the risks of litigation here — and delayed results — are high.
"If it's close, you will see both sides running to court," said Jeff Hastings, a Republican and chairman of the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections.
The Democrats say they fear acts of sabotage.
"How tough would it be for them to send people to the wrong precincts and tie up poll workers to slow things down?" asked Stuart Garson, chairman of the Democratic Party of Cuyahoga County. "If we see someone getting in someone's face, our lawyers will be there."
Robert S. Frost, the chairman of the county Republican Party, said his legal volunteers would be at precincts where Republican poll workers were thinly represented in past elections and where there had been allegations of impropriety. He said the Democrats had built up such a huge legal team because their strategy was to create enough confusion so the race would have to move to court.
"It's pretty cynical," he said. "That's why we need to have people on the ground: to keep an eye on the other side."
The Democrats feel the same way.
"In each battleground state, we are recruiting thousands of attorney volunteers to help recruit, train, educate and observe at polling locations," the Obama campaign said in a statement. "We've retained or opened pipelines to the nation's top experts on voting systems, registration databases, ballot design, student voting and provisional ballots."
Party organizers say the recruitment is similar in number to those of the past two presidential elections, a result of the Florida stalemate, recount and Supreme Court decision in 2000 that gave the election to George W. Bush. But it began earlier and appears to be more widely spread this time. Some of the recruits are brought in from out of state, but most are local and will see any recount or challenge through what could be weeks of litigation on a range of issues.
This week, Robert F. Bauer, the chief counsel to the Obama campaign, sent a letter to the Wisconsin attorney general complaining about misinformation he said the Romney campaign was giving its poll observers during training there. According to the letter, the observers were being given incomplete information on voter identification requirements and assistance available for disabled voters. They were also being urged to sign into polling stations as "concerned citizens," which Bauer said was a misrepresentation and a possible legal offense.
In Pennsylvania, confusion remains over voter ID requirements that could lead to courtroom battles. Because of a law passed earlier this year, poll workers there are instructed to ask voters for official photo IDs, but a judge ruled that voters who do not have them may vote in a normal way anyway. Ellen Kaplan of the nonpartisan citizen group Committee of Seventy said that she had warned state officials that their advertisements emphasized IDs in a misleading way and that court action might follow.
"For this election, we have many, many lawyer volunteers," she added.
Elsewhere, there are questions about absentee ballots and the rules on vote recounts as well as whether state or federal court is the right venue for each question. In Wisconsin, Romney officials are asking for an extension of the deadline for absentee ballots because some went out late to military personnel overseas.
A coalition of liberal nonpartisan groups led by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law will be operating in 22 states offering voters help and a hotline.
Here in Ohio, as in Florida, the first issue likely to go to court on Election Day is a request to keep polls opened late if lines are long. In the March 2008 Democratic primary here, the Obama campaign made just such a request minutes before polls were to close. Jane M. Platten, the director of the county Board of Elections and a Democrat, said that could be the campaign's plan again this year.
A second issue expected to emerge in a close race here concerns provisional ballots, which are submitted when the voter's address does not match the voter list or identification is insufficient. Those votes — there were more than 200,000 in Ohio in 2008 and 80 percent were deemed legitimate — could pose numerous problems and take weeks to sort through. In recent days, Democratic activists have noted that absentee ballots have been rejected for hundreds of people who were told they were not registered when a more detailed search showed that they were. This, too, could lead to a lawsuit.
Hastings of the Cuyahoga County election board said Republicans here would fight any request to extend Tuesday's voting hours. He and other Republicans said that they would be monitoring polling sites to counter any claims by Democrats of excessive lines and that given the weeks of early voting, Ohio had done more than enough to help voters. On Sunday, as election officials everywhere prepare for the Tuesday onslaught, Ohio will have its voting sites open.
But that has come as a result of Democratic legal action. State officials, who are Republican, tried to cut back on early voting hours and reduce the outreach of certain counties to unregistered voters. These were done in the name of establishing uniformity and order but would also have served the partisan aim of reducing the number of voters. Democrats went to court and got them reversed or modified.
In addition, voter challenges brought by conservative groups like True The Vote have in nearly every case been thrown out.
Still, the Republicans have had legitimate complaints, election officials say. Groups associated with the Democrats have sometimes been overly aggressive in voter registration, paying people for each voter registered or offering bonuses for larger numbers of registrations. This has led to fraud. Platten, the Democratic county elections board director, said she had seen multiple registrations for the same person whose Social Security number had been shifted by one digit.
"In the end, that hurts the Democrats," she said, "because we throw those votes out. I've begged them to stop."