Where Have All The Lawyers Gone?

Polling places in key precincts around the country are being flooded by more lawyers than voters. Democrats have 10,000 lawyers on the ground, while Republicans have 8,500. A coalition of outside groups, including the People for the American Way, the ACLU and the NAACP have called upon 6,000 lawyers to monitor the polls in 17 states. The majority of those lawyers say they're donating their time to ensure a clean and fair election.

Too many lawyers, one might say. But some experts think it is a good thing.

The presence of so many lawyers is making a difference, says Jamie Raskin, professor of constitutional law at American University and author of "Overruling Democracy." "A lot of tricks that we weren't even aware of last time we know about," he says. Raskin points to the felon and ex-felon voter purge list in Florida in the 2000 elections which ended up removing more than 50,000 people from the rolls — even though they were never charged with a criminal conviction. "This time there are voting rights groups which have been on top of that process. They (Florida) did indeed attempt to do the same thing, but we've been able to block them in different ways," says Raskin. "The civil society has stood up. That doesn't mean we've won yet, but at least we're galvanized for action."

Still, the fact that almost 25,000 lawyers are monitoring the polls is an embarrassing moment for the country, says Raskin. "We're trying to scramble to defend the right to vote," he says. "Unlike Mexico or Canada, we don't have one national constitutional right to vote. We don't have one national ballot. We don't have an independent nonpartisan electoral commission. Instead, we have partisan election officials like Katherine Harris in 2000."

Jerry Goldfeder, professor of election law at Fordham law school, is volunteering his time in Philadelphia. He predicts the influx of attorneys will have a positive impact and dissuade those who might otherwise attempt to suppress the vote from doing so. "We're training hundreds of lawyers to be poll monitors so that if voters have any problems we can intervene on their behalf," he says. "Our main goal is to make sure that everybody who's eligible to vote can vote."

Based on the tactics that have already been exposed, today is sure to be chaotic. On Saturday, the Wisconsin Republican Party demanded that city officials require identification from 37,000 "questionable" voters. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Justice recently filed a brief supporting a statute in Ohio that allows individuals to challenge the legitimacy of a voter at the polling place. A lawsuit filed late last week in Cincinnati, Ohio contends the procedure disenfranchises voters. A federal court judge agreed saying the Republican plans to challenge voters is unconstitutional. A similar suit is pending in Akron, Ohio.

Polling place observers, otherwise known as challengers, can question a voter's eligibility and demand to see identification. A new provision incorporated into all state laws requires all first time voters to provide some form of identification. Voters who don't have proper identification can still vote using a provisional ballot.

Voters can also use provisional ballots if their names are not on voter registration lists. Provisional ballots require voters to place ballots in an envelope and then place that envelope in another envelope with a signed affidavit. Election officials will then investigate all provisional ballots to determine whether they'll be counted.

And provisional ballots are as likely as anything else to delay final tallies. Ted Lieverman, an AFL-CIO lawyer who specializes in class action suits, predicts each provisional ballot will be inspected like every punch card was inspected four years ago in Florida. Lieverman is also in Philadelphia monitoring the polls. He anticipates it will take up to a week or more to declare a winner. "The Republican party has already announced plans to use massive challenges against newly registered voters,” he says. “That means we'll have thousands of provisional ballots and each one is going to be a fight. It could be ugly."

Members of the Republican party say they have no plans to rely on lawyers to win the election — but they’ll be ready to fight in court in any case. "We're working and focused on winning this election at the ballot box, not in the courtroom,” says Joseph Agostini, spokesman for Florida's Republican Party. “But have no doubt, we are ready for anything that may arise."

Democrats in Florida say they too will be ready for anything. Some 3,000 attorneys are expected to monitor activity in the Sunshine State. "Lawyers plan to sit at polls and watch what's going on — if a voter is challenged or turned away, lawyers will step up and alert the poll worker that the law is being broken," says Christine Andersen, spokesperson with the Kerry-Edwards campaign in Florida. "We've taken a pledge to stay away from any election day challenges. We've urged Republicans to take the same pledge, but they've refused."

Democrats and Republicans say in a best case scenario, Sen. John Kerry or President Bush wins by a comfortable margin and voting runs smoothly. But that's highly unlikely.

"On the one hand, it would be great if we didn't need lawyers and voting was a shared consensus," says Lieverman. "On the other hand, I'm glad there are enough both democratic and nonpartisan public interest lawyers who will go out and try to protect people. I just hope I'm not needed."


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