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THE RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE

Major Parties Already Honing Recount Strategy

Teams of lawyers across the country are ready if the presidential count is contested, as in 2000. The Democrats aren't waiting to sue.

October 03, 2004|Lisa Getter | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Haunted by the specter of the 2000 Florida recount, both major presidential campaigns have begun lining up thousands of lawyers across the country, just in case the election again is too close to call.

Sen. John F. Kerry's campaign has put together an elaborate nationwide plan to mobilize tens of thousands of lawyers on election day, enough to staff every county in every battleground state. Another five legal "SWAT teams" are in place to fly anywhere a recount is warranted.

Democratic lawyers are already filing lawsuits across the country -- including in Ohio, Michigan and Florida last week -- over election policies they believe will disenfranchise voters Nov. 2.

Although Democrats are coordinating their efforts through the Kerry campaign and the Democratic National Committee, the Republicans are relying on state political parties to recruit lawyers.

"The plan is to work very hard until Nov. 2 to ensure that no recount is necessary," said Bush campaign spokesman Scott Stanzel. "If a recount is necessary anywhere in the country, we'll be prepared."

The Democrats say they have learned from their experiences in 2000, when Vice President Al Gore lost Florida by 537 votes, and thus the Electoral College count and the election, after a bitter recount decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 2000, the Democrats had to put together their legal team after election day. They concentrated all their resources in Florida, even though the race turned out to be extremely close in other states too. And the recount did not give them enough new votes to carry the state.

So they've decided this year to fight legal skirmishes across the country, hoping to change state election rules that make it more difficult for voters to cast ballots on Nov. 2. In New Mexico, for instance, the Democrats argued against a rule that would have required new voters to show IDs at the polls, which they said would disproportionately affect minority voters. The state Supreme Court ruled last week in favor of the Democrats.

"One of our principal objectives is to save the votes we can now because it's so difficult to save votes after the election," said attorney Robert Bauer, who is leading the DNC voter protection drive.

The Democratic master plan includes training sessions throughout October for thousands of volunteers, who could be called into action in November. The campaign said it would have enough lawyers available to take care of problems and resolve disputes in every precinct in every closely contested state.

"We're prepared to fight a multi-front war, if necessary," said Marc Elias, general counsel for the Kerry campaign.

It's all part of a three-pronged legal plan launched months ago, when it became apparent that the Massachusetts senator would become the Democratic presidential nominee.

"This came as a candidate order," said Elias. "[Kerry] made it clear to me he wanted the most robust and professional election-day organization anyone had ever seen."

The Bush campaign has enlisted Florida attorney Barry Richard to act as lead counsel if litigation is necessary. Richard, a Democrat, led their recount fight in Florida four years ago.

"Having had the experience four years ago, everyone wants to be ready for it," Richard said.

In Pennsylvania, where the election is expected to be close, the state GOP is focused on getting lawyers in place to monitor the polls on election day.

"Obviously, it's a high priority," said Pennsylvania Republican Party executive director Dan Hayward, who declined to reveal details of the plan. Pennsylvania, which has 9,400 precincts, has no provision for a statewide recount.

In Ohio, another key battleground, the state Republican Party said it had not given much thought to recount plans. Much of the Democratic litigation centers on how various states are interpreting a new provision in the federal voting law that gives voters who believe they are registered, but whose names don't appear on voter rolls, the right to cast so-called provisional ballots.

Some states -- including Missouri, Michigan, Ohio and Florida -- are refusing to count provisional ballots if voters cast them in the wrong precinct, which the Democrats believe is an attempt to suppress minority voting.

"We're battling that hard," Bauer said. He said the issues involve "lots and lots of votes that could decide the outcome of an election."

He also said the campaign was concerned about states that were invalidating registrations of would-be voters who swore they were at least 18 and U.S. citizens in one part of the registration paperwork, but forgot to check a box elsewhere affirming the statement.

The issue is particularly important to the Democrats, who are hoping that hundreds of thousands of newly registered voters will turn out to vote for Kerry. Some independent political action groups known as 527s after a section of the tax code that governs them say they have registered 300,000 new voters in the battleground states alone.

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