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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The trademark white windbreakers of the Voting Rights Team were in evidence here, too. Though they wouldn't give an institutional affiliation at the first polling place, here they came right out and said that they were with the Democratic party. With no Election Protection lawyers (or anyone else) to keep them in check, they had made themselves at home. White windbreakers were at the door of the polling place, they were chatting with voters at the head of the line, and they were all wearing badges that said "Need Help? Ask Me. Voting Rights Team staff." One woman sporting the badge was standing five feet from a voting booth. Hearteningly, she turned out to be a certified Democratic challenger (and thus one of the few windbreakers legitimately inside the polling place). Dishearteningly, she also turned out to be the wife of one of the candidates for Franklin County treasurer.

Clearly somewhat taken aback by the situation, the Roving Legal Team got to work investigating. The affidavit took an hour to record. When they were done, it was back to the call center to get the affidavit typed, notarized, and ready to add to a growing pile in preparation for a possible Republican lawsuit. "It's not the most outrageous thing I've ever seen," admitted one lawyer, "but let's get it processed. It could be important, I guess."

LATE IN THE DAY, the call center of the Election Protection offices bore all the signs of temporary but intense occupation--soda cans, bones from chicken wings, abandoned marker boards. Officially known as the Legal Command Center (though "no one likes the term," according to one volunteer) the digs are a far cry from the GOP's tasteful, glass-paneled conference room. It's a white-walled, semi-windowless space on the third floor of the AFL-CIO building. On the wall is a huge poster decorated with a kinte cloth pattern that reads: "Don't let NOBODY turn you around. This Election Day African Americans won't be turned away at the polls. On Nov. 2, we got your back!"

One advantage Election Protection has on the Ohio Republican legal operation, though, is precinct maps, and lots of 'em. The maps are not coded for Democratic and Republican areas, but voting patterns are known. When someone notices a batch of complaints from New Albany it sparks this overheard conversation: "New Albany, huh. Oh, not our target area. I get it. That's why it wasn't on the radar earlier." New Albany, on the northeast side of Columbus, is 60-40 Republican.

One of the purposes of the call center is to log complaints into a national database in preparation for lawsuits. But the Internet database went down at 11 A.M., so they became primarily a voter information hotline. This is fine with most of the people there, who seem pleased to be helpful.

When the DNC files a suit about the long waits outside polling places that have caused most of the day's complaints, an idling Election Protection spokesperson, who hopes to be admitted to the bar soon, sighs gratefully, "They saved us the trouble of filing anything." A man with a graying ponytail and a polka dot tie agrees that the news is good. The DNC should file the suit, he says, since "they've got the bucks."

According to the spokesperson, the Legal Command Center had no reports of intimidation at the polls "other than the occasional partisan person who was too aggressive." And even though it appears that "every ruling went in favor of the challengers, there was less in the way of organized, structured challenges" than they expected.

Indeed, the only report of a successful challenge came from the Republican call center rumor mill. "There was one kid" at the polls as a challenger, who "was there when someone came in and gave a name and street address. The kid lived on that street, and he knew everyone on that street, and he said, 'You don't live on that street.' The voter left."

IT WAS 9:00 P.M., the polls were closed, and everyone agreed it was getting late. But not late enough to know which way the race was breaking. The Ohio Republican lawyers remained on red alert. A polling place at the Howard Recreation Center was still serving voters who had been in line by the 7:30 P.M. closing time. The door had been locked then to prevent late arrivals from voting. Outside the door was a cluster of lawyers--two from the Roving Legal Team and some folks from the 11th-floor office.