Nov. 1, 2010 -- Election day is still hours away, but already complaints about voter fraud, intimidation and dirty tricks have emerged in key battlegrounds like Nevada, Florida and Pennsylvania.
In Bucks County, Pa., supporters of Democratic Rep. Patrick Murphy and his Republican challenger former congressman Mike Fitzpatrick are sparring over absentee ballots, with Democrats alleging that a disproportionate number of absentee ballot applications from Democrats are being disqualified by the Republican controlled county board of elections.
A Daytona Beach city commissioner was arrested and, along with his campaign manager, charged with committing absentee ballot fraud.
In Minnesota, Democrats have charged that billboards in St. Paul and Minneapolis are intended to scare minority voters away from the polls. The billboards paid for by Election Integrity Watch depicts people behind bars. The same group is offering a $500 reward for tips that lead to convictions of voter fraud organizers
The high stakes battle in Nevada between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Tea Party favorite Sharron Angle has prompted several allegations of cheating, including that Angle supporters who tried to vote early claimed the machines were rigged to cast their vote for Reid. Angle's campaign has also charged that Reid's people held an event at which free food was allegedly offered to people in exchange for their going to vote, which would violate federal election law.
The accusations at times have been supercharged. "Harry Reid intends to steal this election if he can't win it outright," Angle campaign attorney Cleta Mitchell said in a fundraising letter sent earlier this week.
Nevada Secretary of State Ross Miller said earlier this week that he would not tolerate voter fraud, but said it was "technically impossible" for the voting machines to register Reid when a person pulls the lever for Angle. And the accusation of free food for Reid voters has not been brought to his office, Miller said.
In past elections, the accusations and early outrage have often outstripped the evidence.
"Probably most of the talk about voter fraud and voter suppression is now just part of the normal pre-election conversation that is meant to energize the base of each party to get out the vote," said Rick Hasen, a professor at Loyola Law School who runs the Election Law blog. "It's unfortunate that most of these accusations are made without even the slightest bit of proof that there's an actual problem with how our elections are being conducted."
Nevertheless, Republicans and Democrats are lawyering up for the coming legal dogfight.
Democratic National Committee National Press Secretary Hari Sevugan says, "We have confidence that voters are going to be able to go to the polls and have their votes counted and we are working with partners and officials at all levels to ensure that's the case."
The DNC plans to have thousands of lawyers in place on election day all over the country, but will especially be watching those races that seem tightest and potentially most pivotal.
The Republicans declined to say detail what kind of legal team they will deploy on election day, but one Republican familiar with the party's legal operations said, "[Fraud is] a concern for us every cycle. It's a concern I think in particular this cycle because we have close races in states where historically we've had issues – Illinois, Pennsylvania and Washington State."
Cell Phone Apps Join Election Fraud Fight
This year there are some new weapons in their arsenals: cell phones apps. At least two conservative groups have already released applications intended for smartphones that allow anyone to get involved to report problems at the polls.
The group American Majority Action released an app this week BlackBerry, Android phones and iPhones. Users can take a picture of anything they're concerned about, and then, along with any additional details, submit their report, which is automatically stamped with the time and location.
Austin James, the group's media director, says that on Election Day American Majority Action staffers will be in a "war room," ready to pass on any allegations they believe are legitimate to state and local officials.
This election will be over control of the Senate and the House. Operatives in both parties are watching the same set of races, especially Senate elections in Nevada, Illinois, Washington and Pennsylvania that could determine control of the Senate.
With stakes that high, the legal battle could last well beyond any election day recount.
"If someone volunteers as a lawyer for a close election," former Republican National Committee General Counsel Jan Baran says, "they better be prepared to have a lousy Thanksgiving."