FLORIDA - The Republican and Democratic parties are massing armies of lawyers to fight for every vote in case next month's US election becomes a repeat of the 2000 debacle in Florida.
The court cases have already started more than three weeks before polling day. The Democrats have taken Florida's Republican secretary of state, Glenda Hood, to court twice this week, accusing her of putting up obstacles to first-time voters.
One issue at stake is a tiny box on the Florida registration form which the potential voter is supposed to tick to confirm that he or she is a US citizen. Democrats say the box is redundant as the voter is also required to sign a statement stating US citizenship. But Ms Hood has told election officials to reject forms on which the box is not ticked.
She was also taken to court yesterday for restricting provisional voting - in which the voter's registration has to be confirmed after the ballot - to the elector's home district.
These are the opening skirmishes in what is likely to be a fierce and prolonged legal battle that will rumble on until the election on November and beyond if the results are close.
"It is quite possible we will not know the result of this election on November 3," said Robert Boorstin, a former aide to Bill Clinton and a political analyst at the pro-Democratic Centre for American Progress.
This week, the Democrats announced the formation of a legal task force ready for rapid deployment to swing states where the vote may be contested. As part of its 2004 Voter Protection Programme, the task force has a contact list of thousands of volunteer lawyers and a coordinator in each of the 23 states where the result may be close. The Republicans have assembled a similar army, targeting 30,000 voter precincts in 17 states.
Both sides are setting up legal command centres and have prepared paperwork so they can mount rapid challenges to polling improprieties. In general terms, the Democratic pre-election legal effort is aimed at maximising turnout, particularly among black voters and immigrants. Republican lawyers focus more on combating suspected voter fraud, and insisting that the rules are upheld.
This has frequently led to charges that the Republicans and the state governments they control are trying to suppress the minority vote. The Florida police have toured poor neighbourhoods, checking identity documents, in what Democrats say is an attempt to intimidate would-be voters.
The arguments have raised ghosts of the 2000 vote, in which a disproportionate number of black Floridian voters were disqualified over technicalities, and some said they were discouraged by the presence of police checkpoints near polling stations.
One of the stranger episodes of the past month was an attempt by Ohio's Republican secretary of state, Kenneth Blackwell, to disqualify thousands of registration forms in Democratic districts of Cleveland because they were not printed on thick enough card. He was forced to withdraw the ruling amid public uproar.
Harold Meyerson, a liberal columnist, wrote in the Washington Post: "While US troops are fighting and dying to bring the vote to Samarra [in Iraq], their families may be struggling to hang on to the franchise here at home.
"And even as those soldiers are strapping on their body armour to bring the vote to Sadr City, back home - in Florida, Ohio, New Mexico and other battleground states - Republican election officials are working to reduce the number of black and Latino voters."
The Republicans have insisted they are concerned only with fraud and are just as keen as the Democrats to promote a high turnout. "We will fight any effort to suppress votes," JC Watts, a black Republican congressman from Oklahoma told the Cox news agency.
On election day, legal attention is likely to shift to voting methods. Florida has a new computer system which, critics say, can easily be hacked into.
Two-thirds of Ohio voters, meanwhile, will use the punch-card ballots that caused trouble in Florida four years ago. If the presidency rests on a close vote there, both sides could once again be quarrelling over "hanging" and "pregnant" chads.
© 2004 Guardian Newspapers. Ltd.