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Law Students Prepare to Observe US Elections


Legal teams are gearing up for November 2. Many experts anticipate this year's presidential election will be riddled with mistakes and mix-ups similar to the ones that plagued the election of 2000. But volunteers from around the country are hoping to catch those mistakes and correct them right away so every eligible voter will be able to cast a ballot. VOA's Maura Farrelly recently met up with some law students in New York who will be traveling to the states of Pennsylvania and Ohio to observe the polls on Election Day.

"I just want to make sure everybody's in the right place," says Jon Miller, a third-year student at Columbia University Law School. "If you're going to be a poll monitor in Pennsylvania, that's 104. If you're going to do anything else, on the hotline, traveling to Ohio, that's here…"

Normally, Jon Miller would be studying for exams on a Saturday afternoon, but today he's talking to students from several law schools in and around New York about election law in Pennsylvania and Ohio. He begins by telling them about something known as the "Voters' Bill of Rights." It's a brief synopsis of election law that has been widely distributed around the country by so-called "election protection" groups.

"...Basically, that's going to be, as a poll monitor, your mechanism of engaging a voter," he says. "Because as they come to the polls, and you're stationed outside of the polling place, you're going to hand them the Bill of Rights and say something to the effect of, you know, 'We're here to protect the vote. We want to make sure you have a good experience voting. If you have any problems, come see us."

Jon Miller is a founding member of Impact 2004, a coalition of law students from 70 U.S. schools. They're upset about election irregularities not just in 2000, but also in a number of important local elections since then.

"A lot of time there's misinformation distributed in communities," says Mr. Miller. "In Louisiana two years ago, there was information posted in a predominantly African-American neighborhood that if the weather were poor, that people could wait until Friday to vote. And that's clearly incorrect. It doesn't matter what the weather is, people have to vote on Election Day."

A study conducted in 2001 by two of America's leading technology institutes CalTech and MIT found that as many as 6 million votes were lost in the 2000 election, because of ballot irregularities and incorrect polling practices. Many of these lost votes belonged to racial minorities who'd had their names mistakenly removed from voter registration rolls. The minority community in the United States has traditionally voted Democratic, and that's why Sara Monpere, a second-year law student at New York University, signed up to volunteer with Impact 2004.

"I'm obviously so upset with the administration, and so frightened by the thought of four more years of Bush, and I hadn't actually done anything on behalf of the election yet," she explains. "And so I've been getting all these e-mails and talking to all these law students that are doing amazing things, and law professors that are doing amazing things, and so I realized that I really wanted to be a part of it."

That said, Impact 2004 is a staunchly non-partisan group, something organizers have worked hard to emphasize. Sara Monpere says she's committed to helping everyone cast a ballot, Democrats and Republicans alike. And she says there's a definite connection between the non-partisan aid she'll be offering at the polls and her own, personal hopes for America's future.

"The connection is simply making sure that everybody has a right to vote fairly, and everybody has their vote count," she says. "And if everyone in the country has that opportunity, and Bush is elected, then that's a fair election, and that's a fair democracy, and I can live with that. It's when that doesn't happen that [it] is really disturbing for me."

The students volunteering with Impact 2004 will be working with licensed attorneys who are familiar with the sometimes obscure details of state election law. In that sense, being a poll monitor should prove to be a valuable learning experience, according to Laila Hlass, a second-year student at Columbia and founding member of Impact 2004.

"A lot of students go through their law school experience just learning black-letter law and a lot are headed for these big, corporate firms," she says. "And I think it's really good for people to be able to apply their legal skills to every-day life, and I think it's really great for lawyers to be involved in communities and helping people, because, you know, lawyers have a pretty bad rep[utation], and it's often deserved."

In addition to Pennsylvania and Ohio, Impact 2004 will be targeting polls in eleven other states where President George Bush and Senator John Kerry are running neck-and-neck. It's believed that mix-ups in these states could do the most damage to the election's legitimacy. After all, four years ago, President Bush won the state of Florida by a margin of just 537 votes and thousands of ballots that were cast in that state were not counted.

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