Poll workers? Check.
Lawyers? Double check.
No American election would be complete without the armies of lawyers that are being assembled by both parties to contest the results and monitor recounts if the outcome in some states is too close to call on Nov. 6. The nightmare scenario of 2000 – when a recount in Florida left the nation in limbo for days – is once again top of mind.
The Obama campaign has launched an ad recalling the circumstances that allowed George W. Bush to claim the presidency 12 years ago, when the U.S. Supreme Court halted a recount in Florida with Mr. Bush ahead by only 537 votes. The ad is a get-out-the-vote effort by Democrats that reflects their growing fear that razor-thin margins of victory for Barack Obama in key swing states could be undone by GOP lawyers.
“So, this year, if you’re thinking your vote doesn’t count, that it won’t matter – well, back then, there were probably 537 people who felt the same way,” the ad reminds voters.
In addition to Florida, tight races in Ohio and Colorado have Republicans and Democrats recruiting thousands of lawyers to oversee vote counting in those states.
Florida’s so-called “hanging chads” on punched card ballots were the biggest bone of contention in 2000. This year, however, it is the authenticity of absentee (or mail-in) ballots and the validity of provisional ballots that are expected to spark protracted legal challenges on both sides, meaning that Nov. 6 could come and go without a clear winner in the presidential race.
Hurricane Sandy, which has led states in its passage to cancel early voting scheduled for Monday and Tuesday, could also throw a wrench into the process. On Sunday, lines were so long at early voting stations in Virginia and Maryland that some voters simply gave up and went home. That is a problem for the Obama campaign, which is counting on amassing a big lead in early voting to carry its candidate over the top on election day in Virginia, a critical swing state. Maryland is solidly Democratic.
The biggest fear this year surrounds the growing use of mail-in ballots (known in most states as absentee ballots). About 20 per cent of American voters are expected to vote by mail in this election. In Oregon and Washington, both considered safe Democratic territory, all voting is done by mail.
In Colorado, where the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll has Barack Obama and Mitt Romney tied at 48 per cent support among likely voters, about 80 per cent of voters cast an absentee ballot in 2008. Mr. Obama won the state handily last time, but a close race this year means Colorado’s nine electoral college votes might not be awarded for days after Nov. 6 as lawyers for both sides contest the validity of some ballots.
Absentee ballots are far more likely to be challenged than paper or electronic ballots cast at polling stations on election day, since voter data and signatures on mail-in ballots must line up exactly with those on their voter registration records. The slightest inconsistency can lead election authorities to throw out a ballot.
In Ohio, the concern is over provisional ballots. Voters whose eligibility is in question – for instance their current address does not line up with the one on their registration record – can cast a provisional ballot. Ohio will not begin counting those ballots until Nov. 17. More than 200,000 provisional ballots were cast in the state in 2008. And if the election is as close as it is expected this year, such ballots could decide the winner.
Ohio’s 18 electoral college votes are seen as essential to victory, especially for Mr. Romney. No Republican has ever won the White House without taking Ohio.