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Lawyers eye Missouri on Tuesday

Dave Helling // Published October 30, 2008 in Kansas City Star

The first thing we do, let’s hire all the lawyers.

William Shakespeare didn’t write that, exactly — he suggested a more drastic prescription — but he never watched an American election, either.

If he had, he might be astonished to see the hordes of attorneys now pouring into Missouri, preparing to do legal battle over your right to vote and to have that vote counted.

Democrats are leading the barrister parade: More than 1,000 election-trained lawyers will be in the state watching the polls Tuesday.

“This has been an enormous effort, a well-funded, well-organized, top-notch (legal) effort by the Obama campaign,” said Pat McInerney, one of the coordinators of the Democrats’ voter-defense efforts.

Republicans say they will have lawyers ready, too, although they will not provide exact numbers.

“Republicans in Missouri, because of our experience in past elections, have been prepared … to respond to election law issues,” said Thor Hearne, a St. Louis lawyer helping the GOP get ready for Nov. 4.

All sides say they want to avoid major, last-minute lawsuits like the controversial 2000 federal case in St. Louis that extended voting hours.

But they do expect smaller legal skirmishes next week. Polling places might have the wrong ballots — or not enough. Electioneering near polling places can be a problem. Access for those with disabilities is also a concern.

The biggest worry?

Missouri, like other states, is using a statewide voter database that some fear will incorrectly drop registered voters from the rolls.

The recommended remedy for those who face such a mistake is casting a provisional ballot that can be counted later. Many groups, though, call that unacceptable: They claim provisionals are usually ignored or disqualified.

They urge voters whose status is unclear to instead work out the problem at the polls and cast a regular ballot.

Why all the attention? Because the presidential race for Missouri’s 11 electoral votes is so close.

“I think all you have to do is remember Florida in the year 2000,” said former Sen. Jack Danforth, who is helping the McCain campaign supervise voter access and registrations across the country. “Five hundred some-odd votes in one state can make a difference. And then realize there are 10 battleground states, and then just look at the numbers.”

Outside experts disagree over what awaits voters next week.

In a recent report the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, working with Common Cause and the Verified Voting Foundation, said Missouri is among the top six states in preparedness for Election Day.

The groups looked at issues like voting machine repair plans, backup ballots and paper voting records and audits.

Other outside studies, though, say the state is in for trouble.

“In the state of Missouri, there is much work to be done to create uniform standards for the conduct of elections,” a study by a group called FairVote concluded.

“Many localities in Missouri are not prepared to meet the challenge of administering the general election on November 4th,” wrote the Advancement Project, a liberal “voter protection” group.

Election officials dispute those findings.

“Am I concerned? Absolutely,” said Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, who supervises the state’s balloting process. “Do I think (local election authorities) are well-prepared and working hard? Yes, they are.”

But partisans on both sides say Missouri’s troubled electoral history makes a trouble-free Election Day unlikely:

•Federal authorities are investigating some ACORN-submitted voter registrations.

•The Justice Department is pursuing a long-running case to force a purge of the state’s voter rolls; more than 400,000 of the state’s registered voters are considered “inactive.”

•Republicans continue to push for a photo voter ID in Missouri (it is not currently required).

“I am very concerned about the integrity of the upcoming election,” Gov. Matt Blunt said in a statement late last week. “We want to ensure that this voter roll is current and accurate and that every eligible voter is properly registered.”

Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders, a Democrat: “Every two years you have Republican charges of some type of illegal conduct … right before an election.”

Some Democrats are especially angry at Hearne, whom they accuse of active voter suppression in the past, a charge he strongly denies.

“We have no intention of suppressing votes,” Danforth said. “We have suggested that each presidential campaign create … bipartisan teams to look out for both fraud and any kind of suppression … We have been stiffed” by the Obama campaign.

Lawyers for Republicans and Democrats may not be the only legal observers in the state Tuesday. At least one outside group says it has 10,000 lawyers ready across the nation to investigate voter fraud and intimidation.

Some Democrats and Republicans, though, say fears of voter registration fraud and voter suppression may be overblown.

“There’s nothing wrong with our courts having an overseeing role in terms of the laws of our democracy being implemented fairly,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, a key Barack Obama supporter. “But I … think this is a lot of hoo-haw about nothing. I don’t think we’re going to end up having lawyers fighting each other on Election Day.”