CHICAGO—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.
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.