By Mike Baker Associated Press
OLYMPIA, Wash. — President Barack Obama’s campaign has recruited a legion of lawyers to be on standby for this year’s election as legal disputes surrounding the voting process escalate.
Thousands of attorneys and support staffers have agreed to aid in the effort, providing a mass of legal support that appears to be unrivaled by Republicans or precedent. Obama’s campaign says it is particularly concerned about the implementation of new voter ID laws across the country, the possibility of anti-fraud activists challenging legitimate voters and the handling of voter registrations in the most competitive states.
Republicans are building their own legal teams for the election. They say they’re focused on preventing fraud — making sure people don’t vote unless they’re eligible — rather than turning away qualified voters.
Since the disputed 2000 presidential election, both parties have increasingly concentrated on building legal teams — including high-priced lawyers who are well-known in political circles — for the Election Day run-up. The Bush-Gore election demonstrated to both sides the importance of every vote and the fact that the rules for voting and counting might actually determine the outcome. The Florida count in 2000 was decided by just 537 votes and ultimately landed in the Supreme Court.
This year in that state alone, Obama and his Democratic allies are poised to have thousands of lawyers ready for the election and hope to have more than the 5,800 attorneys available four years ago. That figure was nearly twice the 3,200 lawyers the Democrats had at their disposal in 2004.
Romney has been organizing his own legal help for the election. Campaign attorney Ben Ginsberg did not provide numbers but said the campaign has been gratified by the “overwhelming number of attorneys who have volunteered to assist.”
“We will have enough lawyers to handle all situations that arise,” he said.
The GOP doesn’t necessarily need to have a numerical counterweight to Obama’s attorneys; the 2000 election showed that experienced, connected lawyers on either side can be effective in court.
Former White House counsel Robert Bauer, who is organizing the Obama campaign’s legal deployment, said there is great concern this year because he believes GOP leaders around the county have pursued new laws to impede the right to vote.
“The Republican Party and their allies have mapped out their vote suppression campaign as a response to our success in 2008 with grass-roots organization and successful turnout,” Bauer said. “This is their response to defeat: changing the rules of participation so that fewer participate.”
Several states with Republican leaders have recently pursued changes that could make voting more difficult, including key states such as Florida and Ohio, despite objections from voting rights groups that believe that the laws could suppress votes from low-income and minority blocs.
Republicans dispute that the laws are political, pointing to cases of election fraud and arguing that measures like those requiring voters to show identification are simply common sense.
Independent from the Romney team, a conservative group is prepping an Election Day team of its own to combat possible fraud.
Catherine Engelbrecht, president and founder of True the Vote, said the organization hopes to train and mobilize up to one million volunteers this year, many of them to serve poll watchers. One of the group’s main initiatives is to “aggressively pursue fraud reports.”
“Being a poll watcher is an age-old tradition and we’re fortunate that so many volunteers are ready and willing to take a day off, learn what they need to know and help out at the polls,” Engelbrecht said. True the Vote already has thousands signed up to help and had 500 trained election workers monitoring the Wisconsin recall vote earlier this month.
“They serve as volunteer guardians of the republic, to ensure that procedures at the polls are in keeping with state law,” she said.
It’s one of the efforts that have Obama’s team fretting. The Democrats fear that anti-fraud activity could get out of hand, with vigilante poll watchers targeting and intimidating voters who may not know their rights.
“We will have the strategy and the resources to address the threat and protect the voter,” Bauer said.
The Obama-aligned attorneys, most of whom are not election experts by trade, undergo training and have materials to show them how to help at the polls on Election Day.
Charles Lichtman, who is helping advise the effort in Florida this year after leading it in the last two cycles, first created the Florida Democratic Lawyers Council after the 2000 election, vowing that there would never be a repeat of that disputed vote. He contends Democrat Al Gore would have won the presidency over Republican George W. Bush if a similar legal infrastructure had been in place then.
Lichtman’s efforts have since been replicated for other states. He said that is vital to provide voter protection.
“My experience has been that, in every election, the other side has taken drastic measures to try to suppress the vote,” Lichtman said. The volunteer organization has not been involved in the 2012 legal disputes so far, though they are monitoring the developments.
Four years ago, the teams of lawyers organized by Obama and Republican candidate John McCain in 2008 went largely unused since the election wasn’t very close.
But this year may be different given all the changes to voting laws — and the closeness of the race in recent polling.
The states with the strictest ID laws require voters to show photo identification before casting ballots. If they don’t have proper identification or fail to bring it, they can cast a provisional ballot but must later go to meet with state elections administrators to sort things out before the ballot is counted.
Voting groups see a variety of potential problems, such as how voters are informed of the rule changes, how poll workers handle voters who fail to bring IDs and whether voters are provided adequate notice of the steps they need to take after casting an absentee ballot.
About 30 states have some form of an ID law, with varying methods of implementation.
Legal challenges typically start coming in the weeks before the election, but “litigation has started coming sooner and more vociferously” this year, says Edward Foley, an elections law expert with Ohio State University. That includes lawsuits surrounding Florida’s plan to purge ineligible voters from the rolls.
Foley said. “We’re in an era of increased litigiousness over the voting process.”
He said lawsuits after Election Day may occur only if votes in a battleground state are within the “margin of litigation.” That would probably be a difference of just hundreds of votes, a result that would be rare.