Tens of thousands of poll monitors, challengers, lawyers and other activist observers are expected to clog voting precincts in battleground states Tuesday in what will probably be the most scrutinized U.S. election in at least 40 years.
Few federal laws govern these largely self-appointed guardians of the voting process, many of whom are brazenly partisan and who range from civil rights activists to amateur videographers. Many are first-time volunteers, hastily trained by new advocacy coalitions. Others have had no training whatsoever.
Several election directors — including those in swing states — are still drafting ground rules on where monitors can stand, to whom they can talk and how they should report problems. Some guidelines have already been challenged in court.
The confusing rules and lack of federal oversight alarms officials, especially given the intensity of this presidential contest. Particularly in jurisdictions where partisan politics and race have already cleaved deep social divisions, they fear a worst-case scenario where boorish or clueless observers spark a riot.
"People who are doing this care about the election — they're passionate, and I'd hate to see passion rise to the level of confusion or confrontation," said DeForest Soaries Jr., chairman of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, the newly created federal agency in charge of election reform. "They have to remember that one flare-up anywhere in the country could trigger an intense response in multiple places."
Swarms of watchers — as well as pollsters, journalists and political operatives — could overwhelm and discourage voters from casting the very ballots they're trying to protect. Some compare it to a jam-packed Wal-Mart parking lot dissuading would-be shoppers from entering the store.
"Poll monitoring is one of these institutions that's right at the tension point between security and access," said Alex Keyssar, professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "There's nothing wrong with watchers making sure everything is on the up and up. On the other hand . . . they could intimidate voters and slow down the lines. There's definitely potential for some chaos here."
The mobilization may be the single largest election drive since 1964's "Freedom Summer," when thousands of college students traveled to the South to help black voters protect their civil rights.
The Election Protection Coalition, created by the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, People for the American Way Foundation, and the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, has registered nearly 15,000 watchers. They'll focus on 3,500 predominantly African-American and Latino precincts in 17 states.
Political parties have also recruited heavily nationwide, even in no-contest states such as Democratic-leaning California.
In Republican-leaning Texas, an Austin-based activist group is launching a "Video Vote Vigil" to protect voter rights in low-income precincts. Members plan to interview willing voters as they enter and leave polling places and publish the clips online.
Other less partisan groups have also mobilized, and several worry about the integrity of newly introduced electronic voting machines that lack a paper record.
More than 1,300 computer scientists and other technology professionals have signed up to monitor hardware and software on touch-screen voting terminals through VerifiedVoting.org, a group started by a Stanford University e-voting critic.
The Justice Department is mobilizing, too. It's dispatching more than 1,000 observers — nearly twice the 516 who monitored the 2000 election. They'll help secure ballot boxes, set up emergency communications systems and locate backup polling places in case of a terrorist attack or other catastrophe.
In some swing-state jurisdictions, watchers may outnumber voters. Some polling places Florida's Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties and Ohio's Cuyahoga County are bracing for two or three dozen monitors each.
Although state regulations differ widely, monitors typically must follow the same rules journalists and candidates face — they can't enter a polling place unless asked, and must stay at least 50 feet from the entrance.
In Ohio, monitors had to register with election officials by Oct. 22. More than 2,000 Ohio Democrats will watch for voter intimidation and disenfranchisement, while Republicans recruited about 3,600 people, many in the Democratic strongholds of Cleveland, Toledo and Dayton, who will look for fraudulent voting.
Already, Ohio's Republican challengers are questioning the eligibility of 35,000 newly registered voters, and in Florida, Republicans have compiled a list of 2,663 newly registered voters in the heavily minority Jacksonville area with apparently incorrect addresses, based on returned mail from a letter the GOP sent out.
Colorado, where the race between Democrat Ken Salazar and Republican Peter Coors could determine control of the U.S. Senate, issued guidelines for monitors just last week. Secretary of State Donetta Davidson limited each party to one person per station and banned outside groups from sending teams of lawyers to polling places. She's considering another rule that would ban monitors' use of cell phones.
Some Californians are traveling to swing state Nevada, where election officials are trying to minimize disruptions and prepare for record turnout.
"We just want to ensure that voters can vote without being interfered with," said Registrar Larry Lomax of Nevada's Clark County, which includes Las Vegas. He says his staff has been trained to deal with partisan poll watchers who don't "stand there and keep their mouths shut."
The EAC may issue recommendations for monitors — but not until late November, after researchers analyze the 2004 election. If watchers incite havoc Tuesday, Soaries said he may ask federal legislators to adopt amendments governing their behavior.
"I believe in the integrity of the people who do this type of work, but there's no coordination, there are a whole bunch of different kinds of groups, and you run the risk of people masquerading as helpers but whose goal is to be a hindrance," Soaries said. "In the absence of a system, it's hard to express confidence."
Contributing: Brendan Riley, Curt Anderson, Steven K. Paulson