By Tim Reid and Karen Freifeld
(Reuters) - Joe Biden supporter Cindy Kalogeropoulos took no chances when her absentee ballot arrived on Sept. 29. The Michigan retiree filled it out, drove 7 miles to the nearest drop box and hung around to make sure election officials picked it up - all within 48 hours of receiving it.
In neighboring Ohio, Biden backers Eric Bjornard, 42, and his wife Abigail moved quickly too. The couple hand-delivered their mail ballots to their local elections office last month, five weeks ahead of the Nov. 3 election.
Democratic leaders have been urging Biden supporters to show up in huge numbers and vote early amid concerns that nothing short of a decisive victory will prevent Republican President Donald Trump from contesting the results, potentially opening the way for state legislatures, the courts or Congress to decide the outcome.
Telling voters to have faith in the democratic process while simultaneously acknowledging that a landslide may be the only way to oust a defiant incumbent is proving to be a delicate balancing act, more than a dozen Democratic Party officials and Biden campaign advisers told Reuters.
Trump has repeatedly and without evidence declared mail voting to be riddled with fraud and the election "rigged" in favor of Democrats, all the while refusing to commit to ceding power peacefully if he loses. The Democratic operatives said they're concerned that amplifying Trump's claims could backfire and suppress turnout by making Biden voters believe their ballots won't count.
What has emerged is an approach that aims to emphasize the power voters hold to send Trump packing if they act early. In Ohio, for example, David Pepper, head of the state Democratic Party, said his team is using Trump's attacks on voting to motivate Biden supporters to return their mail ballots immediately or to vote early in person.
"We are telling people: 'You hear what he is saying, so go and vote, you can stop him,'" Pepper said. "We are flipping the narrative."
Ohio election officials were overwhelmed with vote-by-mail requests for the state's April presidential nominating contest, when in-person voting was sharply curtailed there due to the coronavirus pandemic. Ballots for some voters arrived too late.
Election officials say they're better prepared this time around. Still, Democratic phone banks, text messages, mailings, social media and TV and radio ads are exhorting Ohio voters to act now to "Make It Count". Polls shows the race tied in a state that Trump won by 8 points four years ago.
The sense of urgency resonated with the Bjornards, the Columbus couple that hand-carried their ballots to their local elections office. "I wanted to make sure they have plenty of time to process it," said Eric Bjornard, who works for a robotics software company.
In Ohio, more than 2.4 million mail-in ballots have been requested, double the 1.2 million requested at the same time in 2016, according to the Ohio Secretary of State.
Nationally, 14.6 million people have already cast ballots by mail or through in-person voting, compared to roughly 1.4 million at the same point four years ago, according to the United States Elections Project, a site run by University of Florida political scientist Michael McDonald that compiles early voting data.
Democrats appear to be driving much of that surge. In states that report party affiliation data, nearly twice as many registered Democrats have requested ballots than Republicans have, the data show. For example, more than 960,000 registered Democrats in battleground Florida have already mailed back their ballots, compared with 564,000 Republicans.
PREPARING FOR A DISPUTED ELECTION
While early turnout is encouraging for Democrats, the Biden camp is preparing for the worst.
Democrats say their turnout campaign is especially critical this year as Republicans seek to restrict mail-in voting despite the pandemic, and both parties fight over how votes are tallied in key states. Dozens of lawsuits have been filed in multiple states, many focused on mail-in voting.
The Biden campaign said it has built the largest election protection program in the Democratic Party's history, including thousands of lawyers and volunteers around the country. Dana Remus, the campaign’s general counsel, is overseeing a wide-ranging team of lawyers with veteran Democratic lawyer Bob Bauer, now a full-time senior campaign advisor. The team includes former solicitors general Donald Verrilli and Walter Dellinger, former Attorney General Eric Holder, and Marc Elias, a top elections lawyer at the firm Perkins Coie.
The Trump campaign has also assembled a large legal team to prepare for a contested result and to monitor the voting process. That effort is being led by Matthew Morgan, the campaign's general counsel, and Justin Clark, deputy campaign manager and senior counsel to the campaign.
Then there are the post-election preparations. Biden's national legal team is examining a series of scenarios, including those in which Trump casts doubt on the integrity of a close contest, campaign advisors said.
Among them is the possibility that a lengthy or disputed count of mail ballots could result in Republican-controlled legislatures in key states intervening to award their Electoral College vote to Trump. The U.S. presidency is clinched by winning a majority of the 538 votes apportioned to the 50 states and Washington D.C. in the Electoral College.
Typically, governors certify the results in their respective states and share the information with Congress. But it is possible for "dueling" slates of electors to emerge, in which the governor and the legislature in a closely contested state could submit two different election results.
The risk of this happening is heightened in states where the legislature is controlled by a different party than the governor. Several battleground states, including Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, have Democratic governors and Republican-controlled legislatures.
According to legal experts, it is unclear in this scenario whether Congress should accept the governor's electoral slate or not count the state's electoral votes at all.
The law governing Congress's role in such a dispute - the Electoral Count Act of 1887 - is unclear and "untested," said Lawrence Douglas, a legal and elections scholar at Amherst College. "We'd be in unchartered territory," he said.
Those scenarios are far less likely, the Democratic advisors said, if enough Americans make sure to vote early in November's election. The Democrats who spoke with Reuters believe the more votes that are counted and processed before Election Day, the less chance Republicans have to dispute the validity of the results.
Jennifer Holdsworth, an attorney and Democratic strategist, said if Democrats run up the score with the vote count, "our legal job becomes easier."
"If it's a tight election, that goes to Trump's favor," she said. "For Democrats to avoid a potential stolen election... we need to make sure the vote is as overwhelming as possible."
Lawyers for Biden are preparing responses for various scenarios and some "are ready to go if needed," said Bauer, the senior campaign advisor. He and Remus, the campaign’s general counsel, declined to discuss contested election scenarios in detail, wary of elevating Republican messaging about potential problems.
"They are trying to sow chaos and confusion and we are focused on not letting them do that," Remus said. "By telling voters how to vote, how to ensure their vote is going to be counted, and giving them confidence, we will pull this election off."
Thea McDonald, the Trump campaign's deputy national press secretary, said it was Democrats, not Republicans, creating mayhem by "irresponsibly" scaring people away from voting in person with their push for mail-in balloting.
"President Trump is absolutely right: mass voting by mail is a recipe for chaos, confusion and disenfranchisement," McDonald said in an email to Reuters. "In a free, fair election, President Trump wins hands down."
McDonald said allegations that Trump might not accept the election results were Democratic "conspiracy theories."
Biden and his running mate, U.S. Senator Kamala Harris, have repeatedly urged people to vote early. During their recent debates with Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, respectively, both steered clear of talking about Trump's unfounded claims of a rigged election.
"Vote, vote, vote!," Biden told Americans during his Sept. 29 debate with Trump, when the moderator asked the candidates to reassure Americans about the integrity of the election. "If we get the votes, it’s going to be all over. He’s going to go. He can’t stay in power."
Joe Foster, chair of the Montgomery County Democratic Committee in Pennsylvania, a critical battleground state that Trump won by less than one percentage point in 2016, said the state party has advised county Democrats not to talk about the possibility of Trump contesting the election there, and instead focus on turning out the vote.
The party is sending voters texts, emails, mailers, ads and social media posts urging them to vote as early as possible, as well as detailed instructions on how to fill out mail ballots correctly, Foster said. People are also being encouraged to bring their completed mail ballots directly to elections offices because of concerns that the U.S. Postal Service may be unable to deliver them in time.
"Our goal is to turn out every vote. We need to have big numbers," Foster said.
'DON'T TRUST THE POLLS'
Several national opinion polls show Biden has opened up a double-digit lead since the chaotic September debate in which Trump repeatedly interrupted his rival, then was hospitalized with COVID-19 a few days later. A majority of Americans reject Trump's handling of the pandemic that has killed more than 216,000 people in the country.
In an Oct. 9-13 Reuters/Ipsos poll, 53% of American adults said they disapprove of Trump's virus response, while 41% approve his handling of the pandemic.
But the race remains competitive in key states such as Florida, Arizona and North Carolina that are crucial to winning the Electoral College. Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Democratic nominee, won the national popular vote by nearly three million votes but lost the Electoral College, and thus the presidency.
Judy Daubenmier, chair of the Livingston County Democratic Party in Michigan - another state that Trump won by less than a percentage point - said she is telling voters not to believe Biden's encouraging poll numbers.
"People are scarred from 2016," Daubenmier said. "Nobody assumes Biden is going to win. We are working like we are two points behind. Anything can happen."
Outside an early voting location in Atlanta on Tuesday, the second day of early in-person voting in Georgia, Aquino Lee said he had waited in line an hour to vote for Biden. The 43-year-old said it had been 25 years since he had last cast a ballot.
Pulling on a cigarette, his face mask hanging off an ear, the general contractor said he was determined to do his part to ensure that Trump is a one-term president. "He ain't no leader. We're suffering," Lee said. "Work has dried up and everyone is afraid of corona. He needs to go."
(Reporting by Tim Reid in Los Angeles and Karen Freifeld in New York. Additional reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta and Joseph Ax in Princeton, NJ. Editing by Soyoung Kim and Marla Dickerson)