By Christian Davenport and Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, November 1, 2008
Thousands of lawyers from both political parties are expected to descend on polling places in Virginia and other battleground states Tuesday in what party officials say will be one of the most intense and comprehensive efforts to guard against Election Day malfeasance and get supporters to the polls.
Lawyers could be present at almost all of Virginia's 2,349 precincts to monitor the process, protect voters' rights and challenge voters suspected of fraud, officials said. They also will be involved in extraordinary attempts to identify party supporters who have already voted so that those who have not can be contacted and urged to do so.
Lawyers have long played a part in the electoral process. But given the heightened intensity of the race and the unprecedented turnout expected, voter protection has taken on added importance, even attracting lawyers to Virginia from out of state, officials said. That is especially true, they say, in the wake of the contested 2000 presidential election in Florida, when Bush vs. Gore moved from the voting booth to the docket of the U.S. Supreme Court.
"We've never done anything like this before where it's been this comprehensive," said Gerry Scimeca, spokesman for the Virginia Republican Party. "With the heightened number of new registrants, Election Day poll watching is taking on an added urgency."
A training manual that the Virginia Democratic Party distributed to hundreds of lawyer volunteers instructs them on the Obama campaign's get-out-the-vote effort, called the "Houdini Project." Lawyers will periodically enter into a database the names of those who have cast ballots so that campaign staff can contact those who have not voted, almost in real time.
"The research that has been done is extremely professional and really unbelievable," said David Traynor, 24, of Ireland, who traveled to New Mexico to volunteer in the Obama campaign and has blogged on the subject. "It could have a significant effect on the vote, perhaps 2 to 3 percent."
The training manual instructs volunteers stationed inside the polling places to "mark down targeted voters as they vote." They will be able to get voters' names, because Virginia law states that officers of election must repeat "in a voice audible to party and candidate representatives present, the full name and address" of the voter. (If the officer of election does not do this, the manual also instructs volunteers "to politely remind them of their obligation to do so.")
Then twice during the day, at 9:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., volunteers inside the polls are supposed to pass the list of voters who have cast their ballots to the lawyers outside the polling place. They, in turn, will call in to a central database and enter four-digit codes assigned to each voter. The names of those who have voted will be removed from the voter database created by the campaign -- their names will disappear, hence the name Houdini -- so that campaign workers can knock on doors and call those who haven't voted.
GOP officials also are poised to undertake unprecedented voter targeting on Election Day, similarly tracking their supporters and reaching out to strongholds in Virginia. A staff member for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), speaking on condition of anonymity because the campaign is not discussing such strategies, said yesterday that active voter tracking will be used in battleground states. The staffer said that technology has made such efforts much easier and that it's a "strategy you have to use."
According to the Democratic manual, the problems that lawyers are specifically asked to report to Democratic Party officials include: polls not opening on time, inadequate numbers of election officials, voting machine malfunctions, lines that cause a wait of 30 minutes or more, election officials turning voters away or requiring too much identification, and shortages of paper ballots.
State law allows a maximum of three representatives of each party or independent candidate inside each precinct.
David Skiles, political director of the Fairfax County Republican Party, said the GOP is "planning on a massive operation to make sure that at all polling locations, the votes are done fairly and that only legitimate voters are allowed to vote. There have been a lot of stories about voter fraud, and we think it's important that the next president of the United States is elected legitimately."
The race for Virginia, one of the country's key battlegrounds, has become so intense that lawyers from across the country are coming to work the polls. Shaw McDermott, a civil litigation lawyer in Boston and member of the New England steering committee of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), is traveling to Virginia because he has long wanted a Democrat to win the state.
"I have a strong interest in being in a place where I can make even a small difference," said McDermott, a graduate of the University of Virginia's law school.
The political parties and campaigns are not the only ones sending out lawyers. Some civil rights groups and voter rights advocates also will be dispatching teams of attorneys. The U.S. Department of Justice will send 800 observers and staff members to 23 states on Election Day. One of the places they will monitor is Chesterfield County, Va., which experienced ballot shortages and delays during the presidential primary that some voters said cost them a chance to cast ballots.
The AFL-CIO will have teams of poll watchers in nine swing states in a nonpartisan effort to protect voter rights, said Bill Lurye, the labor group's associate general counsel. A team of about 300, more than half of whom are lawyers, will come to Virginia, some from as far away as California and Michigan, he said.
"They are going to be looking at a whole range -- from the most aggressive forms of voter suppression to election-line intimidation and attempts to discourage people from voting," he said.
The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization, is sending out hundreds of "mobile legal volunteers" who will be responsible for keeping tabs on three to five precincts each, said Cynthia Alcantara, a lawyer who is helping to coordinate the program.
The lawyers will promote a voter hotline, 866-OUR-VOTE, in case voters have questions the lawyers cannot answer.