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Lawyers gearing up for election day polls watch

on October 28, 2008


Oct. 28–In less than a week, the combined efforts of local and national candidates, political parties, activists, and energized citizens could result in a record Election Day turnout.  Alameda County has added more than 60,000 voters to the registration rolls since 2004; in all, over 800,000 people could be casting their vote.  The challenge of Election Day will be to harness all of this energy and enthusiasm into an orderly, manageable civic exercise. 

Enter the lawyers. 

Andrea Laiacona, an attorney with the Alameda-based firm Weinberg, Roger and Rosenfeld, serves as a voter protection coordinator of AFL-CIO and is helping coordinate the 200 volunteers planning travel to Las Vegas and Reno next week to monitor polling places and answer voters’ questions.  A law degree isn’t required to participate, but almost all these volunteers are lawyers.  

“It’s like all of California is going to Vegas,” said Laiacona, who lives in Rockridge, at a voter protection training session, one of the many she has run in advance of Election Day. 

Laiacona’s most recent training session, convened in her firm’s conference room and complete with the requisite coffee and donuts, featured a 90-minute PowerPoint cheekily titled “What to Expect When You’re Protecting.”  In addition to specifying relevant portions of Nevada election law, Laiacona laid out anticipated issues that could come up on Nov. 4, such as a high turnout of first-time voters, long lines and broken ballot machines. 

Laiacona also warned volunteers of voter intimidation aimed at suppressing turnout on Election Day.  She pointed to two falsehoods reported by Nevada voters: that voters can vote using their touch-tone phone, and that those with outstanding parking tickets or warrants would be apprehended by police at polling stations.  The Nevada Secretary of State, as well as county registrars, has debunked both rumors, according to Laiacona. 

Given the ballot challenges in the 2000 and 2004 national election, talk of voter protection is not simply a hypothetical exercise.  This year, the presidential campaigns are taking no chances, flooding battleground states with lawyers to deal with any problems that could arise.  Speaking of her interactions with the Obama campaign, Laiacona said, “They are really treating this like every county is Broward County or Miami-Dade,” two hotly-contested Florida counties in 2000. 

Oakland attorney Steve Tidrick, past president of the Alameda County Democratic Lawyers Association, believes lawyers are a natural fit for poll monitoring on Election Day.  He said working to protect voters entails “everything you learn in law school: to pay close attention to the facts, to quickly and carefully size up a situation, to report back concisely and carefully whatever is going on.  It’s a set of skills that lawyers, by virtue of their training and practice, tend to have.”

Tidrick is coordinating voter protection efforts for the Alameda County Democratic Party.  His plan for Election Day is to assign his team of ten lawyers to the six Democratic Party headquarters throughout the county, where they will be on call to respond to any problems reported at polling places. 

Noel Knight, an attorney who heads Alameda County’s Lawyers for McCain-Palin, is leading similar efforts, stationing his team of seven or eight lawyers at the registrar’s office, the Alameda County Republican Party headquarters, and select polling sites. 

The purpose of these efforts is, according to Tidrick, to serve as “eyes and ears” on Election Day. “In Alameda County, based on past experiences, the problems that arise are typically accidental and unintentional,” said Tidrick, citing common (and easy-to-fix) problems such as polling places not opening on time.  

Knight said he is instructing his team to look out for electioneering for candidates at polling places – signs, campaign workers, “any kind of shilling.” 

A proliferation of lawyers hanging around the polls may lend a sense of drama to Election Day, but Dave Macdonald, registrar of voters for Alameda County, was quick to tamp down any fears of funny business or wrongdoing on the big day. 

“Always people think there’s a lot of voter fraud,” said Macdonald.  “Frankly, I just don’t see it.” 

Tidrick agreed that intentional fraud was unlikely.  “If there are any situations where a particular state has a doubtful outcome – that rarely happens, but we want to be ready for it,” he said. 

Tidrick and Laiacona both tell their volunteers to expect a long day of watching polls, which may not be particularly eventful.  “Don’t go comatose because it’s so boring,” Laiacona told her trainees. 

But both are quick to point out that a drama-free Election Day is nothing to complain about. 

“What I tell my volunteers is ‘if nothing happens during the course of the day, they should feel very happy about the day,’” said Tidrick.||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||

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