Hire Lawyers - and Caterers

By Benjamin L. Ginsberg
Sunday, July 9, 2006

I still remember the shock I felt -- that mix of abject fear and utter disbelief -- when I realized we would be in a recount after the 2000 presidential vote. Now, following their own ferociously contested election, our friends in Mexico may be joining us in that memorable (but not necessarily desirable) experience.

So, after living though the 2000 Florida recount as national counsel to the Bush-Cheney campaign, I offer a few tips for Felipe Calderòn, Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador and those who will handle the recount for them in the coming days and weeks:

First, get the right people. It makes all the difference. Recruit the smartest, ablest, toughest ones you can find. We immediately started lining up former Supreme Court clerks, red-meat litigators, wily political operatives and top communicators. Be sure they're committed to your candidate -- that commitment makes it possible to manage all that talent.

Second, organize. Former secretary of state James A. Baker III led our recount effort. He brought a career's worth of assets to the endeavor, including vast experience in complex missions. His first charge was the creation of a detailed organizational chart, which paid dividends throughout. The effort had structure and people had defined responsibilities in what was otherwise the most unpredictable, fast-paced and high stakes time of our professional lives.

Next, get a good caterer and some extra phone lines. In other words, pay attention to logistics. You'll have many people to feed (you won't want them taking the time to forage on their own) and many people to keep in touch with minute by minute. Our Florida headquarters received a remarkable number of hang-up calls that swamped the system until we installed new exchanges. One memorable early conference call included so many people around the state that it collapsed after 30 minutes.

Make sure you line up top lawyers, which in a recount are a necessary (and underappreciated) evil. Lawyers don't always win the congeniality prize during campaigns; after all, a big part of the job is saying no. But recounts are -- don't forget -- legal proceedings. Mexico's Federal Electoral Tribunal will have until September to rule. That will require many lawyers. Analyze the various skills your legal team will need under Mexican law and recruit the best for each.

An awful lot will be going on in each counting center, so be sure to develop a strong ground game. Have enough people (with an emphasis on those wily political operatives) to cover everything that happens. Be sure your staff members take detailed notes on each tally sheet, vote packet and ballot they see. That will prove crucial in an eventual court case.

From the start, you'll need communications specialists. It's important that your candidate's victory be legitimized so that he can govern effectively. To achieve that, you need to tell your side of every development every day. Communicators must also manage the deluge of inquiries you'll receive. If the lawyers and the staff in the counting centers have to manage this process, they'll be distracted from their real responsibilities.

Ignore editorials. Sure, if there's one criticizing your opponent, use it for all it's worth. But don't pay attention if they don't like something you're doing. You're doing it for a reason -- stick with that. Also, remember there's so much going on that even the best reporters won't know a third of what is happening on any given day. So trust your people, and pay attention to newspapers and television only for breaking news and for a flavor of what the public is seeing.

The hardest thing to do in a recount -- with all its speed, surprises and changes -- is to keep your effort consistent. Avoid what befell the Gore camp in 2000: First calling for a recount in only their strongest counties, then switching to a "count all the votes" strategy statewide but simultaneously trying to exclude overseas military ballots and 30,000 absentee ballots in two counties. So find a very smart person to focus solely on the big picture, and empower him or her to speak up when the unexpected makes it seem expedient to change everything you've been doing. Your credibility rides on it.

Learn to deal with the wild accusations; it's a presidential recount, after all. Your opponents will issue baseless charges with utter conviction. Remember the butterfly ballot, which can be challenged under Florida law before an election, but not after? Or the charge of voter intimidation, which was loudly publicized although neither Al Gore's state chairman (who was Florida's attorney general) nor Bill Clinton's attorney general (who was from Miami) ever brought any cases? Don't overreact, just debunk the allegations as best you can. Trust me, especially if you win, the bleating will continue long after the country has moved on. Don't worry about it.

Finally, take time to smell the roses or, in Mexico, the dahlias. This is the wildest ride you'll ever be on, but take a moment each day to remember that you're part of history. It may feel like root canal right now, but you'll be eternally thankful you were there. Savor it. And appreciate the people around you. When this is over, you'll have a rare bond that will last forever.

Benjamin L. Ginsberg, a partner at Patton Boggs, served as national counsel to the Bush-Cheney campaigns in 2000 and 2004.

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