Obama’s Florida Counsel is Making Sure the Votes Get Counted

Stephen Rosenthal

Between recount debacles and contentious electoral laws, Florida doesn’t exactly enjoy a trouble-free reputation in high-stakes elections. That is one reason Stephen Rosenthal, lead counsel for President Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign in Florida, got involved. “In 2000, I was working for the U.S. Department of Justice, so I was not able to participate in the presidential election,” says Rosenthal, who grew up in Miami. “In 2001, when I moved back to Florida and went into private practice, I vowed to get involved.”

In 2004, Rosenthal litigated a case on behalf of John Kerry’s presidential campaign, which contended that Reform Party candidate Ralph Nader had not followed proper procedures for getting his name on the ballot. That hooked him on elections.

By day, Rosenthal, a graduate of Harvard Law School, is a partner at Miami-based Podhurst Orseck, specializing in appeals and complex litigation. After hours, he’s on the job for Obama for America—work he does almost entirely pro bono. (The only exception is when the campaign retains Rosenthal for lawsuits.)

His campaign duties are not limited to legal issues. “I’m also handling a lot of organizational matters,” says Rosenthal, who was also co–lead counsel for the Obama-Biden campaign in Florida in 2008 and played a similar role in the 2006 and 2010 midterm elections. “We get involved with everything from voter registration to issues that arise from administering the election, such as problems with the ballots. I also recruit other lawyers to serve as poll watchers, then manage that army of volunteers during the election.”

He’s also an advocate for the voters. “Often there are informational hitches, and people do not understand their rights. As volunteers, we’re devising systems to help people enjoy those rights to the fullest. One of the big issues is that every year there are amendments to the election law,” he adds.

Since 2011, such amendments have sparked increasing controversy in the Sunshine State. The Republican-dominated state legislature has worked to curtail early voting and end voting on the Sunday before Election Day—both statistically more common in the African-American community, which also tends to vote for the Democratic Party.

The legislature also passed an amendment requiring a 48-hour turnaround time for third-party organizations to file voter registration paperwork. This hampers the efforts of nonpartisan voter-participation organizations such as the League of Women Voters and Rock the Vote. (Opponents of the measures also claim the legislation is designed to suppress votes.) “We decided to work within these constraints, even though we had to devote more resources to meeting the deadlines. Until a federal court’s injunction against the [voter registration] amendment [in June], an enormous amount of paperwork needed to be completed and tracked.”

As the presidential election draws near, Rosenthal’s workload is picking up. In accordance with campaign finance laws, his work for the Obama campaign cannot detract from his day job, so he spends nights and weekends on the campaign, and sleeps less. But Rosenthal views his dual missions—the get-out-the-vote work as much as the partisan politics—as well worth the effort. “My first goal is to make sure the voters—all the voters—have their votes counted,” he says.   

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