As Election Day nears, groups brace for legal showdown at the polls

Republicans and Democrats will have lawyers inside precincts and will call party and campaign headquarters with any problems.

11/01/2012 7:13 PM

09/08/2014 6:08 PM

It won’t just be voters heading to the polls in Florida and other swing states, but thousands of lawyers and volunteers scrutinizing how ballots are handed out, scanned and stored inside precincts. Thousands more will stand outside to detect efforts to intimidate, disenfranchise or reward voters.

In the post Bush vs. Gore era, this is what democracy looks like.

"The 2000 election scared the hell out of people," said Nate Persily, a political science professor at Columbia University who has studied election law. "Campaigns are now armed to the hilt with lawyers beforehand so they aren’t caught off guard."

It’ll be hard to catch either side off guard in an election that is already extraordinarily litigious.

Since January 2011, at least 180 bills in 41 states were introduced that aimed to restrict access to voting, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. That flurry of legislation led to 25 new laws and two executive actions in 19 states, representing 231 electoral votes — or 85 percent of what’s needed to win the White House. Laws in 14 of those states were reversed of weakened, however, after legal challenges.

In Florida, a federal judge earlier this year struck down part of a law passed by lawmakers and Gov. Rick Scott that made it harder to register voters by giving groups 48 hours to turn in forms or face fines of $1,000. But other parts of that law remain, setting the stage for a showdown between two deeply mistrustful sides of the electorate.

"The way our elections are run changed in 2000," said Michael Thielen, executive director of the Republican National Lawyers Association. "People realized on the right and the left that there are problems with how we vote and our system needs observers to ensure elections are open and honest."

Republicans and Democrats will have lawyers inside the precincts. They’ll call party and campaign headquarters throughout the day with updates.

Assisting the GOP will be about 4,500 lawyers in more than 30 states trained by Thielen’s group. They’ll monitor polling sites and keep an eye out for fraud of all forms, including voter impersonation and ballot box stuffing, Thielen said. Some Republican lawyers visited Palm Beach County last week to watch how absentee ballots were copied by hand after a glitch prevented them from getting scanned.

Also looking for fraud is True the Vote, a national group with tea party roots from Houston. Its founder, Catherine Engelbrecht has spoken at meetings sponsored by Americans for Prosperity, according to The New York Times, to promote her group’s efforts to remove ineligible voters from the rolls, such as noncitizens, felons and people registered at multiple addresses. She has pledged her group will have 1 million poll workers.

Dara Lindenbaum, associate counsel for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said she thinks Engelbrecht’s group will field far fewer people than that, however.

But True the Vote’s website has helped provide data for like-minded groups like Tampa Vote Fair, which was founded by Kimberly Kelley, a 45-year-old registered Republican from Lithia. She said her group will station 40 certified poll watchers inside and outside the largest precincts in Hillsborough County. Although her group is primarily interested in removing illegal registrants from the rolls, she said her members will mainly watch poll workers to make sure they properly distribute, collect and store ballots.

"We’re not issuing challenges unless it’s really blatant," Kelley said, citing one example as someone bold enough to be spotted voting twice.

Kelley’s group already has filed a challenge questioning the status of 76 Hillsborough voters who she claimed are illegally registered because they are felons. Kelley sent the list to the Hillsborough County supervisor of elections, which then sent it to the Florida Division of Elections. Yet the people on the list don’t know their rights are being challenged because they haven’t been notified.

They will learn of the challenge only when they go vote. Then, according to Florida law, they will be allowed to cast only a provisional ballot, which has a higher rejection rate than regular ballots.

If groups like Tampa Vote Fair seek to limit access to voting, groups like the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law seeks to protect access to the polls.

"We’re well aware of TampaVote Fair," Lindenbaum said. "We’ll be watching them closely."

Lindenbaum’s group is leading the Election Protection Coalition, which seeks to provide education to voters so they aren’t intimidated from casting a ballot. They will have 300 field lawyers or paralegals visit large minority precincts throughout Florida.

They will be joined by groups like the SEIU Florida State Council, the governing arm of the labor union, which will have 230 field organizers, and the Florida Coalition on Black Civic Participation, which will have 200 people. Their main concern is that voters will feel comfortable enough to vote.

"I hope this is a smooth election day, that our phones will be quiet," said Lindenbaum. "Unfortunately, I don’t know if that’s going to happen."

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