Legal War Rooms Prep for Election Battle

With the election merely days away, exhausted political aides are rounding their last laps and preparing to pass the baton to a fresher, less sleep-deprived team: the lawyers.

Thousands of lawyers from both parties have recently stepped from behind the scenes in efforts to protect or challenge issues, like voter registration cards, data bases, voting machines, and early and absentee ballots, in preparation for Election Day next Tuesday.

While "political war rooms" have existed for years to bring together a campaign's political brain trust for strategy sessions, "legal war rooms" are a relatively new and growing phenomenon born after the contentious 2000 presidential election between George Bush and Al Gore that was finally decided by the Supreme Court.

"Since Bush v. Gore, there's a greater awareness of what can happen on the legal side of the equation," says Benjamin L. Ginsberg, who, as national counsel for Bush/Cheney, played a central role in the Florida recount. "It was a singularly historic event in the lives of lawyers, and no one wants to miss it if the Fickle Finger of Fate actually strikes again in our lifetimes."

On election night 2000, both parties realized they didn't have enough lawyers on the ground, and had to fly in legal teams to scramble and understand issues like "hanging chads."

The campaigns have learned a lot in eight years.

"The most effective way to build the legal team is to develop it as part of the campaign's Election Day operation," says Ginsberg, "and that lead time does allow for more boots on the ground by Election Day."

Battleground states will have war rooms bursting with legal talent on election night, but the campaigns have different priorities. Republicans, in general, are worried about the issue of voter fraud and Democrats are concerned with any effort to intimidate or suppress the vote.

"Our first hope is that voters will be the ultimate decider of elections," says Ben Porritt, spokesman for John McCain. "But 2000 made us aware we had to be prepared for all types of scenarios on Election Day."

The McCain campaign has lawyers, volunteers and staffers who will serve as poll watchers in major battleground states.

The Obama campaign began its "legal war room" efforts earlier in the campaign season, deciding to link its national political and legal teams with local lawyers in counties where they hoped to pave the way for record turnouts of young, low income and minority voters who may not have participated in an election before.

Lawyers worked to make the process of voting as trouble free as possible. "We see voter protection as an element of turnout," says one Obama official on background.

"We have put in extra resources" explained Bob Bauer, the general counsel for the Obama campaign on a recent conference call, "to make sure voters have access to the franchise." Bauer said the campaign began last summer to "work on what needed to be done."

One Indiana election board official, who has been contacted several times by lawyers affiliated with the Obama campaign, was stunned by the campaign's early efforts in Indiana, which has unexpectedly become a battleground state.

"They are a very together bunch," says Monroe County Clerk Jim Fielder, a Republican. Fielder, who has held his job since 1979, says, "I have never seen anything like this. We have met several times and gone over concerns."

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