FORT LAUDERDALE — Eight years after Florida's election debacle, presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain have mobilized thousands of lawyers to monitor polling places across the state in search of irregularities.
Both sides insist their goal is not litigation — only to safeguard voters' rights. But, as in the 2004 presidential race, the army of lawyers has put both sides on the defense, girding for possible challenges of voters at the polls.
Florida's liberal voter challenge law allows any voter to challenge another person's right to vote, forcing that voter to cast a provisional ballot on Election Day.
The first sign of trouble: The Florida Democratic Party asserted in a lawsuit Thursday that Republicans are plotting a broad vote challenge effort based on a direct-mail piece sent to older Democratic voters that sought to confirm voters' party affiliations. Among the evidence the Democrats cite is an unsuccessful petition a Republican sheriff candidate filed in rural Glades County last week challenging 300 voters.
Republicans say no such "caging" effort is under way. The Republican National Committee called the lawsuit a "baseless" attempt to generate publicity days before the election.
The new charge comes as both sides deploy volunteer lawyers to early voting sites. Only lawyers registered to vote in that county and approved as poll watchers can stand inside the polls. Other lawyers can work the line outside, talking to voters about their rights.
"I want to make sure we don't have a questionable outcome like they had here in 2000," said Steven Weiss, an Oakland, Calif., lawyer working an early voting site in Fort Lauderdale Thursday.
Democrats claim to have recruited 5,000 lawyers, all but about 1,000 of whom are Floridians.
Republicans declined to state their numbers. The Florida McCain legal team is led by Hayden Dempsey, a legal adviser to Gov. Jeb Bush and statewide chairman of Lawyers for Bush-Cheney '04.
"We'll have enough lawyers to protect ourselves," said Ed Pozzuoli, the South Florida coordinator of Lawyers for McCain and a veteran of the 2000 Florida recount.
Pozzuoli criticized the Democrats' legal approach as overkill. "I think it borders on voter intimidation if they are outside working the voting lines," Pozzuoli said. "It really is a recipe for mischief."
Not true, said the leader of the Obama campaign's voter protection effort in Florida. He is David Sullivan, who works for Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and who served for 10 years as legal counsel to that state's elections division.
Sullivan said lawyers are there to be sure the law is followed. He cited cases of poll workers who incorrectly believed a voter's address on a driver's license has to match one in the voter file. (It doesn't.)
Some participants say having so many lawyers increases the likelihood of election litigation.
"It's hard to have that many lawyers in such close proximity to each other without having problems. But you never know," said Democratic lawyer Mark Herron.
The avalanche of attorneys concerns Secretary of State Kurt Browning, who recently told Republican Gov. Charlie Crist about "both campaigns, flying in, busing in, trucking in attorneys" to Florida.
That brought a quick reply from Crist, himself a lawyer: "The (attorney) general and I will not take offense to those attorney comments."
Democrats reject the notion of "lawyering up" as a prelude to filing lawsuits. But a national fundraising pitch Thursday by Democratic strategist Paul Begala, seeking donations in close Senate races, raised fears of voter intimidation by Republicans.
"We have a team of experienced lawyers and trained poll watchers ready to jump at any sign of trouble," Begala wrote.
Times researcher Emily Rieman contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (850) 224-7263.