The Magazine

Litigate This!

From the November 15, 2004 issue: There were more lawyers than cheaters in Ohio.

Nov 15, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 09 • By KATHERINE MANGU-WARD
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Columbus, Ohio

IF YOU LISTENED very carefully as Election Day dawned, you could hear the sound of a thousand wingtips creaking as their lawyer-occupants leaned expectantly forward, ready to hustle across the state of Ohio with their eyes peeled for "voting irregularities." Florida 2000, you got the sense, had been just a warmup.

Lawyers with varying degrees of expertise in the fine details of election law descended on Ohio (and Florida and other presumed hot spots) from across the country. Weighing in with 115 volunteers in Franklin County alone, the Election Protection coalition (a project of People for the American Way, the NAACP, the AFL-CIO, and four or five dozen other assorted pro-Kerry groups) was dominant at the polling places, with an all-day presence at the dozens of schools, churches, and rec centers where county residents voted. By 6 A.M., their teams were pouring out the back door of the AFL-CIO building in Columbus and into the suburban wilderness.

I tagged along behind one four-woman group dispatched to a suburban elementary school. They spied their first "irregularity" within moments of arriving. Two women in white windbreakers had stationed themselves well inside the 100-foot perimeter set up by Ohio law to keep potential interlopers of all kinds away from polling sites. The windbreaker women were carrying binders and verifying that the people in line were voting in the right precinct. They wouldn't say what group they were with, and a small fuss quickly became a clamor and threatened to escalate into an election-observer West Side Story when it was discovered that the windbreakers' plastic shopping bags were full of Democratic campaign literature. They were a Voting Rights Team stumping for Kerry--same church, different pew.

Cell phones sprouted from every handbag, and various headquarters were consulted. After some wary circling, excuses were proffered sotto voce ("I think my hair is gelled too tight to my head, that's why I have a headache") and asses were covered ("I'm going to fill out an incident report . . . and I would appreciate if the right person is specified. I don't want to be drawn into somebody else's drama"). Finally, TV talkshow conflict-resolution techniques were employed ("I really felt offended by that because I heard you on the phone") and peace was made.

No sooner was the Voting Rights Team safely nudged outside the perimeter than another crisis confronted the Election Protection lawyers. In a blatant attempt at electioneering, a grade-schooler displayed a sign reading "Vote NO on Issue 1" (the same-sex marriage ban) in the window of his school bus. Written on a torn-out leaf of notebook paper, the sign was just inches from the 100-foot boundary. The school bus quickly pulled away, however, and the crisis was averted.

It started to rain harder, and the wind kicked up. "If you have any problem voting, any problem at all, you just come right back out here and tell me!" one lawyer would holler as voters went by. She was roundly ignored, as each voter made a mad dash for the door. One of the lawyers turned up her collar and stepped just inside the 100-foot perimeter to take refuge under a tree.

This time, no one raised a fuss.

ACROSS TOWN, on the 11th floor of a snazzy office building, there are cries of dismay around a conference table. Someone has opened another jumbo bag of M&Ms, ruining the Election Day diets of a dozen lawyers fielding fraud complaint calls for the Ohio Republican party. As they listen, the lawyers pace around the room and stare out of the floor-to-ceiling windows at rainy downtown Columbus. Many of the calls are small potatoes--long waits, petty squabbles--but rumors fly: "Did you hear that someone brought a busload of 30-40 people and demanded that they receive provisional ballots?" "Did you hear one of the voting machines had 5,000 votes on it before the polls even opened this morning?" "Did you hear that Democrats are inside the polling places wearing 'Ask Me' tags and pretending to be election workers?"

The last charge, at least, turned out to be more or less true. Dispatched to Koebel Elementary School to investigate claims of electioneering and get an affidavit from the on-site Republican challenger were two tired but cheerful out-of-town lawyers on the GOP's Roving Legal Team. They denied that the use of the word "Roving" was subtle homage to Saint Karl, but he would surely have been pleased with the work they were doing. When they arrived at Koebel, the scene inside the gym resembled a hurricane refugee center. "Just need some cots in there," said one of the lawyers.