Tens of thousands of lawyers took up positions across the United States Monday ahead of the presidential election amid fears of a repeat of irregularities that tainted the 2000 poll. Legal battles have already broken out in many states, including Iowa, Ohio and Florida, as Republicans and Democrats turn to courts to determine voter eligibility, electronic voting and handling of absentee and provisional ballots.

Republicans and Democrats went ahead with plans to dispatch thousands of lawyers to potential election trouble spots even as judges made 11th-hour changes to voting rules in Ohio, a state that could determine the presidency.

Partisan lawyers will join thousands of outside lawyers and neutral poll watchers on Tuesday, concentrating on Ohio, Florida and a handful of other states where the race between President Bush and Sen. John Kerry is extremely close.

With just hours to go before polls open, a federal judge barred Republicans from challenging voters’ qualifications inside polling stations in Ohio, saying a GOP plan to question up to 23,000 names would unfairly target minority voters. The Ohio challenges violate a decades-old national agreement between the political parties, U.S. District Judge Dickinson R. Debevoise said.

Republicans are appealing to a federal appeals court, Republican National Committee spokesman Jim Dyke said.

Earlier Monday, another judge ruled against Republicans in a separate case involving the same list of potentially suspect voter names. A group of Republican voters appealed that federal court ruling Monday, setting up the possibility of a lawsuit heading for the Supreme Court on the very eve of general voting.

“The law is clearly in our favor,” Republican Party lawyer Mark Weaver said.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati did not immediately rule on the GOP voters’ appeal. Edward B. Foley, director of Ohio State University’s election law center, and other law professors predicted a ruling before polls open at 6:30 a.m. local time Tuesday.

Either side could eventually appeal to the Supreme Court, although with time running short it is unlikely the high court would get involved.

Republicans want to place challengers inside polling places because of concern that thousands of voters were fraudulently added to the state rolls this year. Challenges would take place on the spot, and a voter found ineligible would be turned away.

Democrats and civil rights organizations say Republicans are targeting minority voters in an attempt to reduce the number of ballots cast for Kerry and other Democrats.

“All of this activity is racial profiling,” said NAACP Chairman Julian Bond. “None of it is aimed at white voters. It is all based on the racist presumption that racial minorities are cheaters.”

The dispute is the latest in a series of legal face-offs over rules for casting and counting votes this year. The maneuvering began weeks ago and was most intense in Ohio and Florida, each with rich caches of Electoral College votes.

The dueling lawsuits sought to loosen or lift some voting restrictions, the position usually favored by Democrats, or to tighten or strictly enforce other procedures, the position usually taken by Republicans. Democrats plan to field 10,000 lawyers nationally on Tuesday, with the Republican total not far behind.

Republicans lost a federal court battle to challenge as many as 35,000 Ohio voters before the election, and then turned to a plan to station partisan challengers at the polls on Election Day.

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