Election Lawyers Are Ready to Pounce

Voters react after the elections office in Miami-Dade County reopened its doors to voters who waited in long lines for an absentee ballot in Doral, Florida, Sunday, Nov. 4, 2012 Photograph by Alan Diaz/AP Photo

Nearly 200 people banged on the locked doors of the Miami-Dade Elections Department in Doral, Fla., on Sunday afternoon, clamoring for it to reopen and shouting, “Let us vote!” The state’s GOP-controlled legislature cut the number of days for early voting this year—from 14 to eight—and prohibited early voting from taking place on Sundays. Miami-Dade officials had decided to open the office for a few hours on Sunday anyway in response to long lines all week—unbeknownst to Miami’s Republican mayor, Carlos Gimenez, according to the Miami Herald. After Gimenez found out, the Herald reports, the precinct closed. That’s what prompted the protest. An hour later, Gimenez allowed the precinct to reopen. “I’m upset at this change, but at the end, when you have 200, 300 voters out there ready to go, you really can’t disenfranchise them,” Gimenez told the newspaper, adding: “I’m certainly embarrassed.”

By that time, the Florida Democratic Party had already filed a lawsuit (PDF) against state and local election officials, arguing that the voting period in Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties should be extended because long lines at precincts earlier in the week had caused many people to give up on casting ballots.

And so began this election year’s legal bonanza.

Both parties have dispatched thousands of lawyers and volunteers to polling precincts in hotly contested states including Virginia, Florida, Ohio, and Colorado to watch for fraud and procedural snafus that could disenfranchise voters and skew the results of the presidential race. The Romney campaign’s legal team, led by Ben Ginsberg, national counsel for President George W. Bush during the 2000 Florida recount, has launched Project ORCA, allowing volunteers to send voting information from precincts back to the campaign via smartphones. President Obama’s general counsel, Robert Bauer, has spent millions on an operation that involves lawyers trained to spot whether voters are being intimidated or put through unnecessary hassles by groups affiliated with the GOP.

In Ohio, Democrats are fighting an order issued on Friday evening by Secretary of State Jon Husted that changes the conditions under which poll workers can accept provisional ballots. (In October, Husted appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to block early voting.) Election lawyers are also closely watching Virginia, which requires voters to present photo IDs. If they forget their IDs, the state gives them until noon on Friday to prove their identity and have their ballot cast. That means votes may not be fully counted until the end of the week.

“Last-minute rule changes implicate how votes are counted and can make a very big difference in terms of close election outcomes,” says Keesha Gaskins, senior counsel at the left-leaning Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, which is among dozens of groups keeping watch over activities at the polls on Tuesday. More than two dozen lawsuits involving voting rules had already been working their way through U.S. courts during the past six months. With the dead heat between Obama and Mitt Romney going into Election Day, there’s a strong chance the legal skirmishes will continue.

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