By James Rowley
Both candidates have armies of volunteers to ring doorbells and get voters to the polls. They are also forming squadrons of lawyers who are filing challenges and preparing in case Election Day doesn't settle the contest for the White House.
Legal battles unfolding in Ohio, Indiana and Wisconsin provide fresh evidence of the potential fights to come over ballot access in an election marked by unprecedented spending to increase the number of voters in strategically important states.
The millions of dollars that have been poured into registration drives have yielded millions of new voters across the country. Those same efforts have now generated heated battles in both parties with cries of voter fraud and intimidation that may threaten the integrity of the election.
Election officials, meanwhile, are braced for huge turnout and the problems that could create with long lines, malfunctioning machines and challenges to voters.
Already, the U.S. Supreme Court has handed Ohio Democrats a victory, dissolving a court order obtained by Republicans to force state officials to release the list of 200,000 new voters whose names or addresses don't match government databases.
Democrats accused Republicans of trying to improperly disqualify voters.
In Florida, Democratic lawyer Charles H. Lichtman has assembled almost 5,000 lawyers to monitor precincts, assist voters turned away at the polls and litigate any disputes that can't be resolved out of court.
``On Election Day, I will be managing the largest law firm in the country, albeit for one day,'' said Lichtman, 53, a Fort Lauderdale corporate lawyer and veteran of the five-week recount after the 2000 election when Florida eventually delivered the presidency to George W. Bush.
Obama's lawyers also have pressed allegations that Michigan Republicans planned to use mortgage-foreclosure lists to challenge voters. Indiana labor unions allied with Democratic presidential nominee Obama, an Illinois senator, are battling a Republican chairman over early voting in the state's second- largest county.
Much of the partisan disagreement is over enforcing a 2002 law enacted by Congress to help states prevent a Florida-type recount by requiring election officials to set up database checks to purge voters.
Ohio's Republican Party obtained a court order directing Jennifer Brunner, Ohio's secretary of state, to give county election officials the lists of new voters whose names didn't match drivers' licenses or Social Security records.
In her successful Supreme Court petition, Brunner called the order a recipe for ``disruption'' and ``chaos'' as the state prepares for a presidential vote that polls of Ohio voters predict will produce another razor-thin margin. Database checks are not ``a litmus test'' for the right to vote, she said in a statement announcing the appeal.
Republicans contend the federal law requires record checks to counter fraudulent voter registration, which they say has been perpetrated by a nationwide network of community activists known as ACORN. The party's presidential nominee, Arizona Senator McCain, has cried foul over the drive by ACORN -- an acronym for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now -- to register 1.3 million voters this year.
``They're registering the same person at different addresses,'' said Sean Cairncross, the Republican National Committee's chief counsel. ``They're registering people at vacant lots'' as well as ``deceased individuals.''
ACORN says bogus applications are only a tiny percentage of the new voters it registered, and it flags suspicious cases to election officials.
On Oct. 2, Ohio Republicans won a separate court fight with Brunner over absentee ballots cast by McCain supporters. The state's Supreme Court countermanded Brunner's order that local election boards reject the ballots if the applicant hadn't checked a box that indicating they were a ``qualified voter'' when submitting the absentee ballot.
Democrats and voter-rights lawyers, meanwhile, accuse Republicans of twisting the Help America Vote Act to use identity-card or database checks as a method to prevent legitimate voters from casting ballots.
``That is one of the oldest dumbest lines the Democratic Party uses,'' said John McClelland, spokesman for the Ohio Republicans in Columbus. ``There is no basis for it.''
Ohio doesn't require first-time voters to register party affiliation, though the Obama campaign said Democrats have a significant edge among the 660,000 new Ohio voters.
Michael McDonald, a political scientist at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, said there is scant evidence of large numbers of people fraudulently casting ballots. ```We all know the stories of dead people voting in Chicago,'' he said. ``We don't have zombies showing up at polling places and casting ballots.''
Without ``any data,'' the argument over whether there is vote fraud or ballot suppression is ``the political equivalent of a religious debate,'' said Doug Chapin, director of electionline.org, a Washington-based unit of the Pew Charitable Trust that studies election law.
`Tenets of Faith'
``Both sides have deeply held tenets of faith, but no way to prove'' that ``they are right or the other side is wrong.''
Still, vote fraud has become an attack line for McCain, 72.
In an Oct. 15 debate, McCain said Obama, 47, was in league with ACORN and accused the group of ``perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history.''
Obama denied any connection with ACORN, and said the group was defrauded by people who filled out registration cards with fake names just to get paid.
Bob Bauer, the general counsel of Obama's campaign, charged that Republican efforts like the Ohio party's lawsuit, are ``grounded simply in an effort to intimidate voters and suppress the vote.''
In a conference call with reporters, Bauer vowed to mount ``ferocious response'' to any effort to purge voter rolls, such as the lawsuit by Wisconsin's Republican attorney general, J.B. Van Hollen.
Van Hollen, who co-chairs McCain's presidential campaign in Wisconsin, sued to force the state agency overseeing elections to perform database searches to check the validity of all voters registered since Jan. 1, 2006. A decision is expected next week.
In Indiana, Republicans and Democratic-allied labor unions are battling over early voting in Lake County, an historically Democratic stronghold that includes Hammond, East Chicago and Gary near Chicago. John Curley, the county Republican chairman, argues that the election board lacked authority to open more than one site because state law requires a unanimous vote of the vote of the board.
The McCain campaign wouldn't say how many lawyers it has deployed or how it is preparing for possible court fights.
``We are not jumping to conclusions that litigation efforts are going to be widespread,'' said Ben Porritt, a McCain spokesman.
Hayden Dempsey, a Tallahassee lawyer who chairs Lawyers for McCain in Florida, said his party isn't ``trying to lawyer up nearly so much as the Democrats.'' Republicans are trying to mobilize voters while Florida Democrats appear to be trying to ``win this through having the greatest number of lawyers.''