WASHINGTON – Party lawyers in many states will be available en masse at the polls on Election Day, but whether they will be welcome depends on the party to which they belong.
Democrats say they are training and placing 10,000 local attorneys across the country to guard against voter intimidation at the polls this year. But they complain that the lawyers Republicans are activating in a similar fashion — as well as the nationwide anti-voter fraud initiative launched by the Justice Department — will serve to intimidate voters, not protect them.
"They have this program of ballot security and protection — it's just a veiled attempt at voter intimidation and vote suppression," charged Maria Cardona, spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee. "It's just a method to intimidate minority voters."
Justice Department officials hotly responded to those charges on Thursday, pointing out that Democrats seem to want it both ways: They complained when there were no monitors in place to guard against irregularities at the polls during the 2000 presidential election, and they complain now when the feds are carrying out their duty to help.
"You can't complain when there are no monitors and then turn around and complain when there are. Make up your mind," said Jorge Martinez, spokesman for the Justice Department, which announced in the beginning of October that it was working with 94 U.S. attorneys across the country to establish official election monitors in each voting precinct for the purpose of "protecting voter rights."
Federal officials will also be monitoring precincts in several states under the direction of federal statutes that were put into place over the years in response to past incidents of voter fraud, discrimination and irregularities.
Officials from Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia, Mississippi, West Virginia, North Carolina, Texas, New York, Arizona and Florida have entered into agreements that place federal monitors in counties where particular problems have been noted.
In Florida, the counties of Orange, Osceola and Miami-Dade — the scenes of the worst irregularities in the 2000 election and continued problems throughout the primaries — have signed a consent decree to have Justice Department monitors observe the elections. Democratic Party lawyers will also be on hand there.
Martinez said aside from the monitors in the precincts, officials elected to help in the initiative will be waiting in their offices should complaints arise.
Still, Democrats are suspicious of Justice Department initiatives.
"I think it's a disgrace," said Democratic political consultant Tom King. He suggested that efforts on behalf of the Republican administration and the Republican National Committee amount to nothing less than an official goon squad to intimidate voters.
He described a situation in which voters will be harangued on their way into the polls, and told they will be arrested if they try to vote and cannot produce proper identification.
"They intimidate minority voters especially," King said. "Lawyers can observe, but they don't need to intrude. If they intrude, that's interfering with the election process."
But GOP political consultant Rich Galen said it's illegal for any official not sanctioned by the state to approach any voter inside the polling place. As for warning voters about what is and what is not outside the law, that's perfectly within anyone's right to do.
"It's a valid warning, it seems to me. Like a sign that says if you drive 60 miles an hour in a school zone you'll be given a ticket," he said.
"They whined and moaned because the Justice Department didn't send [feds] down to Florida in 2000," Galen said. "They try to pretend that John Ashcroft was the attorney general during that election, but it wasn't, it was Janet Reno."
Towson Fraser, spokesman for the Florida Republican Party, pointed out that Democrats will have a legion of lawyers working in the states, too.
"When you've got the DNC sending — in their words — over 10,000 lawyers to be at polling places, to me that's intrusive," he said. "There's a difference in our election planning. It almost seems as though the Democrats want to find trouble at the polling places."
"I think hopefully, everybody wants to make sure it goes as smoothly as possible. Voters don't need someone in a three-piece suit breathing down their necks," Fraser said.
What is certain to happen at the polls this year is the availability of both Republican and Democratic National Committee lawyers to address any problems — including possible recounts — that should arise in the heavily contested congressional races across the country.
"That's typical," said Galen, noting that recent headlines are already predicting voter fraud.
Both parties have alleged voter suppression of some type in South Dakota and Arkansas. Those are two states where the Senate races are so close, they could tip the balance of power in the Senate.
"A good campaign has lawyers on call all the time in case there's a problem," said King. "I think people — and I haven't had any specific conversations with anyone — are much more aware of the legal ramifications this year and are preparing for it."