By Michael Martina
(Reuters) - Democrats are mounting their most extensive voter protection effort ever to gird for what Joe Biden called his biggest fear: the prospect that President Donald Trump will try to interfere with the Nov. 3 election or refuse to accept its outcome.
Interviews with more than a dozen party officials reveal how Democrats, in coordination with Biden's presidential campaign, are preparing for fights over absentee ballots, potential voting recounts and the possibility that Trump's Republican supporters will seek to intimidate voters at the polls.
The Democratic Party has hired voter protection directors in 19 key states to lead more comprehensive operations than in past cycles and filed a record number of lawsuits ahead of the election trying to make voting easier. Thousands of election monitors and lawyers will be mobilized across the country on Election Day, the officials told Reuters.
Republicans say that while they are making routine preparations for recounts and voting irregularities, they are more focused on combating efforts to expand mail-in balloting.
Trump has cast doubt on the legitimacy of mail-in ballots, which have been used in far greater numbers in primary elections amid the coronavirus pandemic. He has also made unsubstantiated allegations that voting will be rigged and has refused to say he would accept official election results if he lost.
A person briefed by the Biden campaign on its strategy told Reuters that the former vice president's staff was bracing for a "nightmare scenario" in which Trump is leading the in-person vote count in battleground states on election night but complains the contest is being stolen from him in ensuing days as mail-in ballots get counted.
One party official in a battleground state who asked not to be identified said the campaign was quietly coordinating a legal strategy with state-level party staff for post-election scenarios such as the 2000-style Bush v. Gore recount.
Trump is "laying the groundwork to say: 'The election was stolen, there was fraud, we're going to go to court, we're going to call out people on the streets,'" said Mark Brewer, an elections lawyer who is helping train Democratic legal volunteers in Michigan. "The guy is capable of anything, so we have to plan for everything."
Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said Democrats were trying to undermine the election's integrity with efforts that could lead to fraud.
"In a free and fair election, President Trump will win," Murtaugh said.
The state-level Democratic official said Bob Bauer, a former Obama administration counsel now active in the Biden campaign, and Marc Elias, a leading voting rights and recount attorney, were "part of the contingency planning."
The official would not provide details, explaining Democrats did not want to leak their playbook or needlessly conjure the specter of a contested election.
Bauer and Elias did not respond to interview requests.
Phil Shulman, a spokesman for the Wisconsin Democratic Party, said: "Our lawyers and the DNC lawyers are fully prepared and getting at least mentally ready for a scenario where they have to go to the courts and fight."
Officials with the Biden campaign and Democratic National Committee also declined to discuss plans around a disputed election.
"We've designed an expansive voter protection program with the best lawyers in the country working to address every possible contingency and ensure that November's elections go smoothly," said Rachana Desai Martin, national director of voter protection for the Biden campaign.
'DESIGNED TO INTIMIDATE'
Democrats say their greatest focus is on guarding against what they expect to be a significant voter-suppression effort by Republicans.
Party officials in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania - where Trump won narrowly in 2016 and that Biden now leads in opinion polls - are planning robust poll-watching efforts.
In Michigan alone, the Biden campaign is working with the state party to activate thousands of volunteers, many of them lawyers, with a goal to monitor every voting site.
Democrats say their increased emphasis on poll monitoring is fueled by uncertainty over Michigan's new rules that allow every voter to cast a ballot by mail, which Trump opposes, as well as the expiration of the 1982 nationwide decree designed to stop Republicans from suppressing votes.
That ruling, imposed after complaints of improper conduct in past elections, required Republicans to get court approval before they could conduct poll-monitoring activities in minority precincts.
One senior Trump campaign official told Reuters the lifting of the decree in 2018 was "a real sea change" and would allow Republicans to try to meet their goal of deploying 50,000 volunteer monitors, mostly in battleground states.
Lavora Barnes, chairwoman of the Michigan Democratic Party, said she expected to hear more reports of Trump supporters walking near polling sites with guns.
"That's the kind of thing that is clearly designed to intimidate," she said.
Although Democrats have not typically monitored polls for nominating contests, they plan to use Michigan's primary on Aug. 4 as a trial run for the November general election, said Mary Ellen Gurewitz, the Biden campaign's lawyer there.
"I'm working with a group of election lawyers to try to get ready, and that means a whole lot more this year than it's ever meant," Gurewitz said.
The Republican Party's legal efforts are concentrated on blocking some states from mailing absentee ballots to all registered voters. The party also is seeking to derail efforts to allow more ballot harvesting, which is when a person collects and submits multiple ballots.
"The system is not ready for these changes and it will be overwhelmed, leading to lots of problems," said a Republican official involved in the party's efforts.
Dana Remus, general counsel for Biden's campaign, said Democrats would be ready if Republicans fight dirty.
"We will not let their legal strategies determine this election," she told a campaign fundraiser last week.
(Reporting by Michael Martina; Additional reporting by Jarrett Renshaw, Tim Reid and Trevor Hunnicutt; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Peter Cooney)