Party Lawyers Ready to Keep an Eye on the Polls

With heavy voter turnout expected on Election Day, both parties are amassing thousands and thousands of lawyers to keep an eye on the polls.

Senator Barack Obama’s campaign is expected to send at least 5,000 lawyers to Florida alone. The first recruitment e-mail message the campaign sent out nationally received 6,000 responses from lawyers willing to volunteer. Meanwhile, Senator John McCain’s campaign has lined up “Lawyers for McCain” to spread out at polling places in closely contested states as advocates for the ticket.
Both campaigns plan to use the lawyers to protect their supporters at the polls, help untangle ballot problems and run to court should litigation be necessary. Given the heated ballot challenges in the 2000 and 2004 elections, getting legal talent on the ground on Election Day is becoming as common a tool for the campaigns as advertising and polling.
“Both sides are assembling literally thousands of lawyers at the state level,” said Kenneth Gross, a campaign finance lawyer at Skadden, Arps in Washington who represents both parties. “We’re not talking about Laurence Tribe or David Boies, but there will be no shortage of lawyers looking for any kind of imperfection in the process.”
“There’s been a tremendous mobilization effort,” Mr. Gross said.
The role of lawyers, especially at polling places, has grown since the 2000 election. For the Obama campaign, the recruitment of lawyers began the moment it set up field offices and is part of its long-term strategy to make voting easier.
Already, lawyers for Mr. Obama have been talking to county election officials and boards of election to increase the number of early voting sites, to encourage early voting and to make sure that there will be sufficient number of voting machines.
“We have a selective, but ferocious legal strategy,” said Jenny Backus, a spokeswoman for the Obama campaign’s legal program. “Rather than waiting for Election Day, we’ve had lawyers working from the beginning. We’ve used them for a massive voter education program, so that people know their rights and what to do on Election Day.”
This comes on top of an effort the Democratic National Committee began after the 2000 election. The committee set up a National Lawyers Council to work on ballot issues, established a voter protection hot line and surveyed 1,300 state and local election officials to flag potential Election Day problems in advance.
So far, over 10,000 lawyers have signed up over the committee’s Web site. “We want to assist voters in real time to make sure they will be able to vote,” said Joe Sandler, general counsel for the committee, “and to advocate for them with local election officials.”
Alan C. Kessler, a partner at Wolf Block in Philadelphia who recently hosted a $6 million fund-raiser for Mr. Obama, said he had already received four calls from Obama volunteers asking him to work on Election Day. Mr. Kessler said the 2000 election had caused many lawyers to want to become more active.
“Lawyers have always written checks,” Mr. Kessler said. “Now we are taking it to the next level in assuring that there will be no issues on Election Day. We are learning from the last two elections and we now have the credo ‘Never again.’ If we lose, we lose. But we don’t want it because of something that took place in the polling place.”
Some firms, like Saul Ewing in Philadelphia, are allowing their lawyers to receive pro-bono credit for voter protection work on Nov. 4. Saul Ewing, with 250 lawyers and offices in the mid-Atlantic region, says that lawyers from nearly all of its nine offices will work at the polls and that the firm’s Harrisburg office had been used for election training.
“Our lawyers are willing to go mano-a-mano if necessary,” said Orlan Johnson, a partner at Saul Ewing and a member of the Obama national finance committee. All volunteers must undergo a training session either in person or online with the Obama campaign.
“We’re going to have lawyers at the polls and in close proximity to the court houses,” Mr. Johnson said. As an example, he said lawyers could be helpful in keeping the polls open when lines became extremely long.
The McCain campaign and the Republican National Committee declined to say how many lawyers they had enlisted. Sean Cairncross, the committee’s chief counsel, said: “We will have enough lawyers to respond to any contingency. We have a great nationwide volunteer core of lawyers ready to help. On Election Day, we will be engaged at every level.”
Mr. Cairncross said Republican lawyers would be on the lookout for voter fraud, and would work to halt such previous stunts as having busloads of voters show up to keep polls open beyond their statutory closing time.
Mr. Cairncross said that “lots of times,” Republicans had been “cast as leading a massive voter-suppression effort and trying to keep people from voting.”
The reality, he said, is that “we are civic-minded citizens who are taking the better part of the day and who have been through an Election Day training course.”
Democrats say their lawyers have already had an impact. In Montana, a federal judge upheld a Democratic challenge to a Republican attempt to purge 6,000 voters from the rolls. And in Detroit, a court settlement was reached over allegations that Republicans were going to use home foreclosure lists to challenge voters.