Legal volunteers hope to ensure a fair election

— -- For at least one day next week, Charles Lichtman will preside over the nation's largest law firm.

Lichtman's assemblage of 5,000 volunteer lawyers, paralegals and law students will fan out across Florida with one goal in mind: to ensure a fair election for their top client, Barack Obama.

The Democratic Party's effort in Florida is the largest mobilization in the country, but there are others. Democrats in Virginia say they have nearly as many legal volunteers — more on a per-capita basis. In Ohio, Pennsylvania and other key states, a record number of lawyers representing both presidential campaigns, both major political parties and voting-rights groups are ready.

John McCain's campaign also will be monitoring the polls. Spokesman Ben Porritt says Republicans have a vast operation in battleground states to help voters and to "make sure that fraudulent activity isn't occurring."

"We want this election to be decided by voters, not lawyers," Porritt says. "But we will also have efforts and people in place to ensure that that's the case."

Civil rights groups have organized about 10,000 legal volunteers to work the polls on Election Day in 25 states, the biggest such effort in history, says Jon Greenbaum of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. The coalition is manning a hotline that has received more than 50,000 calls, he says. On Election Day they plan to have 32 call centers — based mostly in law firms.

Election watchdogs from both parties say most problems will be technical, not political. Challenges, and possibly lawsuits, are likely over voter registrations gone awry, machines that malfunction, supplies that grow short and lines that grow long.

The infusion of lawyers and legal watchdogs into thousands of precincts in battleground states is an outgrowth of the 2000 presidential race in Florida, where George W. Bush's 537-vote victory over Al Gore was decided after a 36-day recount and a Supreme Court ruling. Since then, voting and litigating have gone hand in hand, and the number of court challenges to elections has more than doubled.

"That started this whole process of everybody lawyering up to the nines," says Julie Fernandes, a former civil rights attorney at the Justice Department. Lawyers are "little tiny Band-Aids all over the country to try to stop the bleeding in a broken electoral system."

Lawyers at the polls are nothing new. They've been there since the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965. The Justice Department, which protects minority voters from intimidation, announced Thursday that it will send more than 800 observers to 59 jurisdictions in 23 states on Election Day. During this year's primaries, it sent 582 observers to monitor 55 elections in 18 states.

The volume of volunteers this year is higher than ever. Lawyers backing Obama have been in the field for weeks, often traveling far from home to man a particular battleground county. Florida's operation includes lawyers from Massachusetts. In Virginia, many hail from Maryland; in Pennsylvania, they come from New York.

"There's just been a great outpouring of people who want to get involved," says Jack Young, a Washington, D.C., lawyer leading the Democrats' effort in Virginia.