Arms race: Parties, groups ready thousands of lawyers for Election Day

Supporters of George W. Bush and Al Gore are kept apart by police during a demonstration outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. December 2000. The legacy of that race is an increased legal presence from candidates on both sides of the aisle.
Supporters of George W. Bush and Al Gore are kept apart by police during a demonstration outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. December 2000. The legacy of that race is an increased legal presence from candidates on both sides of the aisle. KRT

As Americans prepare to vote Tuesday in dozens of tight elections, the two major political parties and interest groups across the ideological spectrum already have lawyered up for potential problems at the polls or with election results.

On Election Day, armies of partisan attorneys and poll watchers will be at the ready at voting sites and in war rooms in almost every state, scrutinizing nearly every aspect of the voting process and prepared to spring into action if they see something that could adversely impact their candidate or cause.

“The parties are well lawyered up,” said Richard Hasen, a University of California, Irvine, law and political science professor and the author of “The Voting Wars: From 2000 to the Next Election Meltdown.” “It’s a tactic and a tool. It’s like an arms race.”

Call it the legacy of Bush v. Gore. The 2000 presidential contest between Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore came down to a 537-vote margin in Florida, weeks of court fights, and ultimately went to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Since 2000, when the parties felt, especially Democrats, they were caught flatfooted, they send lawyers to places where they expect close races,” Hasen said. “Campaigns now have boiler rooms where they sit and watch the polls. The most important thing is to have a (legal) infrastructure in place.”

And some legal maneuvering already has begun. In Iowa, Republican Senate candidate Joni Ernst’s campaign filed open records requests last week in at least eight counties asking for information on satellite voting locations, names of precinct ballot counters, recount procedures and any communications sent to her Democratic challenger, Rep. Bruce Braley.

“I think they’re gearing up for a recount,” Johnson County Auditor Travis Weipert told The Gazette newspaper of Cedar Rapids.

National Democratic and Republican officials won’t divulge their Election Day legal strategies. Still, some available numbers show the emphasis that the parties and outside groups are putting on possible legal action.

The Republican National Lawyers Association has conducted 60 election law training sessions nationwide. From those sessions, more than 1,000 lawyers and volunteers will be prepared to work in their states on Tuesday, according to Michael Thielen, the association’s executive director.

“Efforts to ensure open, fair and honest elections are state-based,” Thielen said in an email to McClatchy. “We will try to help out in the event of canvases, recounts, etc., if called upon to ensure only legal votes are counted.”

Democrats declined to say how many lawyers they have on call for Tuesday.

“We have the resources to contest anything,” said Democratic National Committee spokesman Michael Czin. “We’re ready.”

Groups such as the NAACP and the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School say they’re ready, too. They’re among the liberal-leaning organizations partnering with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which says it will have between 1,000 to 2,000 volunteer attorneys and non-attorneys in 18 states and on telephone hotlines on Tuesday prowling for problems at the polls.

California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin are among the 18 states.

“These are states that have a history of problems from past elections or have changed voting laws,” said Chris Melody Fields, the group’s manager of legal mobilization.

Wendy Weiser, director of democracy programs at the Brennan Center, said the phalanx of lawyers will be on the ground “to help voters, not file lawsuits.”

“But if we have to file lawsuits in order to help eligible voters vote, that’s in the toolbox,” she added.

A wave of states implemented new voting laws that take effect this election year. Some 31 states have laws that require voters to some form of identification at the polls.

Opponents of the ID laws say they are Republican efforts to suppress the votes of minorities, college students, the elderly and the poor, groups that tend to vote for Democrats and the least likely to have valid government-sanction identification.

Proponents of the laws say showing identification – especially photo ID – is a valuable tool to protect against voter fraud.

True the Vote, a conservative group, will have three to five lawyers monitoring for election fraud from the group’s “observation deck” in Houston, according to Logan Churchwell, the group’s communications director.

The group also may rely on a loose network of volunteer citizen poll watchers – True the Vote says it’s trained over 400,000 since 2012 and released a how-to poll-watch video earlier this month – and social media.

In addition, True the Vote released an app for iOS and Android phones to enable people to report suspected voter fraud.

“We will also be monitoring social media traffic based on location,” Churchwell said. “If people have a bad voting experience and they put it on Twitter or Facebook, we’re going to be monitoring for cases like that.”

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund is dispatching five attorneys to Texas, Alabama and Georgia, which are among the states that will either require or request identification.

“Elections are becoming more and more contested,” said Leah Aden, a legal defense fund staff attorney. “In the past there have been incidents where we’ve had to seek injunctions.”