As Americans go to vote Tuesday, Democrats and Republicans have sent out teams of lawyers across the nation to watch for fraud, intimidation and other illegal tactics that could mean the difference in some of the closest races.
Already, Democrats were crying foul Monday over a pamphlet distributed in Baltimore's largely African-American precincts warning voters to pay their unpaid traffic tickets, overdue rent "and most important any warrants" before going to the polls. The pamphlet, which was distributed anonymously, also gave the wrong date for Election Day.
To watch for such problems, the Democratic National Committee, for example, has trained and deployed 10,000 lawyers, paralegals and poll watchers for some of the tightest contests, including ones in Minnesota, South Dakota, Missouri, Arkansas and Florida.
They also have set up a toll-free number -- (866) VOTE-411 -- monitored by teams of lawyers to allow voters anywhere in the country to report problems at polling places.
A spokesman for the Republican National Committee insisted the party has no comparable operation.
"What we're really focused on is getting people out to vote," said spokesman Jim Dyke. "We have not seen [Election Day] as an opportunity to file 10,000 lawsuits."
Nevertheless, a group called the Republican National Lawyers Association has launched a "ballot integrity program," similarly dispatching attorneys to select locations around the country to watch for vote fraud.
The Justice Department has sent out more than 400 lawyers to monitor polling places in 14 states, the federal government's largest oversight effort since the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965.
On the eve of Election Day, criminal lawyers at the Justice Department were investigating 16 alleged cases of voting fraud and voter intimidation. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft pledged Monday that the department would work to guarantee every citizen the right to vote and to have the vote counted.
"It's likely to be the cleanest election this country has had in many, many years," said David King, an expert on voting problems at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.
Shadow of Florida in 2000
With the campaigning drawing to a close, the parties' new focus on lawyers at the polling places is a direct outgrowth of the 2000 election debacle in Florida, which took more than a month to sort out as armies of attorneys battled all the way to the Supreme Court.
And with up to 10 Senate races too close to call, according to opinion polls, each party is more concerned than ever about making sure every one of its voters' ballots is cast and counted. Nationally, voter turnout is expected to be low, putting a premium on get-out-the-vote operations.
"Obviously, what you have is a number of very, very close elections, and control of the Senate hangs in the balance," said Ron Klain, the Democratic lawyer who helped navigate the legal maze for Al Gore in Florida two years ago.
In addition, several potential glitches ranging from quirky state laws to the possibility of slow recounts could keep control of the Senate in doubt.
In Minnesota, for example, confusion and frustration abound over absentee ballots cast for Sen. Paul Wellstone before his death Oct. 25. A court ruled that voters must request new absentee ballots to revote; it could have ordered election offices to send them out automatically. Democrats also were concerned about whether the ballots could be mailed out, returned and counted in time.
In South Dakota, the race between Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson and Republican Rep. John Thune was expected to hinge on votes from the state's nine Indian reservations. The Democratic Party launched an aggressive effort to register Native American residents to vote, which prompted GOP allegations of voter registration fraud.
As state and federal authorities investigate, Democrats said they were concerned that monitors at polling places on reservations could drive down turnout among voters who traditionally lean Democratic.
The Senate race in Louisiana may remain undecided for a month if Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, fails to win 50 percent of the vote Tuesday. Landrieu is expected to get more votes than her challengers, but if she does not get more than 50 percent, she will face a Dec. 7 runoff election against the candidate who finishes second.
A lame-duck session of Congress also could be left up in the air, dependent upon the outcome of the Senate race in Missouri, as well as the appointment Monday of a temporary senator from Minnesota, Independent Dean Barkley.
In Missouri, the victor is expected to be sworn in immediately because this is a special election, with the winner serving out the term voters gave the late Mel Carnahan in 2000.
With Monday's announcement of Barkley's appointment, the Senate has 49 Democrats, 49 Republicans and two Independents. Jim Jeffords, the Vermont Independent, routinely votes with the Democrats. Barkley has said he does not know which party he will side with. If Missouri Republican Jim Talent defeats Democratic Sen. Jean Carnahan, that could hand control of the Senate to the Republicans, if only until January.
Tight Senate contests
One day before Election Day, 10 Senate races remained too close to call. Strategists said contests in Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, South Dakota and Texas could go either way.
While few people expect Republicans to lose control of the House, there are enough down-to-the-wire contests that party officials are monitoring those races for questionable activities.
"We're very concerned about intimidation of voters, especially African-American voters, and the early reports have infuriated me," said Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), chairwoman of the Democrats' congressional campaign committee. "They are aggressively intimidating people while saying they're just making sure that there's nothing going on."
Lowey and other Democrats were furious about the pamphlets found in Baltimore's black neighborhoods, but Republicans were equally as angry at Democratic charges that the pamphlets came from them.
"It's just an offensive charge," said Dyke of the RNC.
Meanwhile, even campaigns in states with no history of polling problems are arming themselves with lawyers.
In Colorado, where the Senate race is a statistical tie, the campaign of Democrat Tom Strickland, who is challenging GOP Sen. Wayne Allard, has tapped lawyers to be on call to answer questions about problems in every precinct. Campaign manager Brian Hardwick said the Strickland team also is distributing cards to voters informing them of their rights.
For example, it tells voters they do not need to bring identification to the polls to vote, and they can request a provisional ballot if they are not on the registration list.
Tribune national correspondent Judith Graham contributed to this report.