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Brigades of lawyers go to polls

It’s a sign of the times that both parties prowl the sidelines, preparing for legal challenges.  

Published November 7, 2006


Yard signs: $10,000.

A week-long, statewide media buy: $1-million.

An army of lawyers to challenge any election law that stands between you and a razor-thin victory: priceless.

As a political strategy, “lawyering up” for an election first went prime time in 2000, the year the country endured a month of legal challenges to find out who was president. The concept was new, and the Republicans were better at it.

But now legal backup is as integral to the Election Day ground war plan as the last-minute, get-out-the-vote phone calls and vans chauffeuring shut-ins to the polls.

And this year is no different.

Floridians heading to the polls today will be joined by hundreds of lawyers working for either end of the political spectrum. Some already live in-state, but many spent the weekend parachuting in from across the country.

Summoned by the political parties and their advocacy group kin, the lawyers will take notes at the precincts. They will take calls from nonlawyer volunteers who spot problems and suspect irregularities.

And with control of the U.S. House of Representatives up for grabs, they will take no chances.

“While we don’t expect there to be any problems, we do have a plan in place to ensure that every legal and legitimate vote is counted,” said Jeff Sadosky, spokesman for the Republican Party of Florida.

Add to that the “unprecedented” 850 elections monitors the Justice Department says it will deploy across the country in this midterm election — including to Hillsborough, Broward, Palm Beach, Duval and Osceola counties — and voters in strategically sensitive areas could see as many elections observers at their precinct as workers.

“Once a voter leaves and his vote isn’t counted, there’s nothing you can do,” said Jorge Mursuli, vice president and Florida head of the left-leaning group People for the American Way, explaining his group’s decision to staff the polls and have roving bands of lawyers on the ground, ready to respond to complaints.

Both sides are expected to keep an eye on the state’s new identification requirement. For the first time this year, voters must present both photo and signature identification in order to vote.

This is also the first year that every precinct, even those that use optical scanners, must have an electronic machine that allows disabled voters to vote without assistance.

Electronic touch screen machines have been ruled unreliable in some parts of the country, and their use is considered by elections experts to be vulnerable to challenge.

Ones to watch

Also, there are three close Florida congressional races that could flip from Republican hands into Democratic. Two of the races — Districts 13 and 22 — are fairly straightforward.

But the race for District 16 is complicated by the fact that a vote for disgraced former Rep. Mark Foley will actually count for his GOP-picked replacement, state Rep. Joe Negron.

Both sides’ lawyers are expected to keep close tabs on voter turnout in those races and could challenge any number of elements if the margin of victory is slight.

Richard Hasen says lawyers likely have become a permanent fixture on the American political scene.

Hasen is an expert in election litigation at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, and has documented the national increase of election-related litigation from an average 96 cases a year before 2000 to 254 cases a year now.

Part of the increase, Hasen notes, is a direct result of the legal challenges in 2000; those cases established equal protection rights in election case law that didn’t exist before but which now form the basis for other lawsuits.

And part of the problem, Hasen says, is indirect; state lawmakers who passed laws to unify elections also gave lawyers new elements to challenge. All this litigation has increased parties’ comfort level with it as a tool, he said.

“The parties seem less shy about challenging the results,” Hasen said.

[Last modified November 7, 2006, 05:39:43]

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