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Trump vs. Clinton? Campaign lawyers scramble to ensure fair voting and prepare for any election battles

Trump vs. Clinton? Campaign lawyers scramble to ensure fair voting and prepare for any election battles
Poll worker Elizabeth Young, of Worcester, Mass., hands out ballots at an early voting location. (Associated Press)

In the final days before the election, lawyers for the two major political parties are working to make sure voting is fair and free — but also readying to do battle if the outcome is in dispute.

In Philadelphia, where Democrats enjoy overwhelming majorities in many districts, Republican lawyers are scrambling to make sure they have authorized poll watchers at nearly all of the city’s 1,682 polling places. But it’s not always so simple.

“I’m absolutely concerned when one party controls the precinct,” said Linda Kerns, a Republican lawyer in Philadelphia. “But it’s not too easy to find Republicans in some of these precincts.”

In North Carolina and Texas, civil rights lawyers are working to make sure that eligible and registered voters are not blocked from casting ballots because they do not have a specific photo ID card. Earlier this year, federal courts struck down GOP-backed laws in both states that had imposed photo ID rules. Judges determined that the burden of the new rules fell unfairly on minority voters.

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"It's frustrating at this point to hear of county officials or poll workers not complying with the decisions," said Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Meanwhile, Democratic Party lawyers are going before a federal judge in New Jersey on Friday to seek a court order that would hold officials of the Republican National Committee in contempt if they support or participate in what they call Donald Trump’s “voter intimidation program.”

Their legal motion puts a new spotlight on a 34-year-old consent decree that bars the RNC from undertaking "any ballot security activities" directed at black or Latino voters. Three years ago, the RNC appealed to the Supreme Court and said the consent decree was "antiquated" and should be ended. But the justices turned down the appeal, leaving the decree intact for another national election.

Last week, Democratic Party lawyers went back to court and argued that the GOP, through its presidential nominee, has been violating the decree. Trump has repeatedly urged his supporters to "go down to certain areas and watch and make sure other people don't come in and vote five times."

"Take a look at Philadelphia, what's been going on, take a look at Chicago, take a look at St. Louis," Trump said on Oct. 18. "You see things happening that are horrendous." He provided no details or evidence to support his claims.

In response, the Republican Party's top lawyers insisted "the RNC and the Donald J. Trump campaign are separate entities." In a brief filed Monday, John R. Phillippe Jr., the party's general counsel, said he sent a memo to all the party's staff saying the "RNC has no role and will not partake in any voter fraud or poll watching activities" and will not participate in "any ballot security efforts by other organizations, including Mr. Trump's presidential campaign."

A federal judge will hold a hearing in Newark, N.J., on Friday to hear from both sides.

Meanwhile, both parties have signed up lawyers who have volunteered to help out if problems arise in their area. For many, it simply means being on call on election day so they could spring into action if a state vote count is in dispute.

The Republican National Lawyers Assn. says its members are ready to go if requested by the party or its candidates. "The RNLA expects to have over 1,000 lawyers trained and active in elections across the country," said Michael Thielen, the group's executive director.

In the disputed 2000 election, armies of lawyers descended upon Florida amid questions over the counting of paper card ballots and a razor-close margin. The Supreme Court ultimately decided George W. Bush vs. Al Gore in favor of Bush.

At the Washington headquarters of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, a conference room has been buzzing as about 25 lawyers and law students take calls from voters and election workers who report problems and ask questions.

The "election protection hotline" began in 2002, and the call volume has grown with each election cycle.  Clarke said the largest numbers of calls have come from Texas, Florida, North Carolina and Georgia, four states that had been under the close scrutiny of the Voting Rights Act until the Supreme Court relaxed the oversight provision in 2013.

"We are living through the fallout from the court's decision to gut the Voting Rights Act," she said.

Lawyers monitoring the calls say so far they have heard of only scattered and minor reports of problems at early voting sites, including people using bull horns to address voters. They will be on full alert on Tuesday.

"We continue to be very worried about voter intimidation and challenges, particularly given the national rhetoric over 'rigged elections,'" said Allison Riggs, a lawyer with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice in Durham, N.C. She was referring to Trump's repeated claims that the race has been "rigged" for Hillary Clinton by the media and the Washington establishment.

In Philadelphia, Democratic and Republican lawyers say they can usually work together to resolve election-day problems.

"We have the same basic goal: that every single person who is qualified can vote without being harassed or abused," said Steven Kaplan, a lawyer who works for the Democrats.

He said he is not worried by fears that Trump's supporters may come into the city's minority neighborhoods and harass voters.

"Have you been to Philadelphia?," he asked. "So people will come in from the suburbs and cause a problem in the neighborhoods? You would have to very stupid to try that."

On Twitter: DavidGSavage

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