WASHINGTON – More than 400 federal observers and Justice Department attorneys will monitor polling places in 14 states, the largest federal Election Day effort since the civil rights era.
In addition, attorneys with the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section will be on duty from the moment polls open on the East Coast until they close in the West to assist local officials with any fraud or voter intimidation cases.
The goal, Attorney General John Ashcroft said Monday, is to "guarantee every citizen, in accordance with the law, the right to vote, and to every voter the right to be counted.''
Most of the observers and attorneys will be working to ensure compliance with the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which guarantees ballot access for all eligible voters. Widespread voting problems were reported in 2000, particularly in Florida where the disputed results delayed by a month the declaration of George W. Bush as president.
Federal civil rights attorneys are set to monitor polling places in Broward, Duval, Miami-Dade, Orange and Osceola counties.
In all, 432 observers, including 108 Justice Department lawyers and other personnel, will monitor elections in 26 counties. Officials say that is the largest number since the early 1970s, when observers were routinely sent to dozens of counties in the South to ensure ballot access for African-Americans.
The monitors will attempt to ensure that these counties are complying with voting laws that prohibit discrimination of racial and language minorities, guarantee access for disabled people and ensure that all eligible voters can cast their ballots.
Courts have ordered federal observers in seven counties, with another eight assigned observers because they are in areas covered specifically by the Voting Rights Act because of their voting histories.
These counties are: Apache and Navajo in Arizona; Randolph, Georgia; Wayne, Michigan; Adams and Amite, Mississippi; Passaic, New Jersey; Bernalillo, Cibola, Sandoval and Socorro, New Mexico; Kings and New York, New York; Titus, Texas; and San Juan, Utah.
The observers, dispatched by the federal Office of Personnel Management, will be overseen by 38 Justice Department officials who will maintain contacts with local election officials should problems surface.
Seventy other Justice Department officials, most of them civil rights attorneys, will monitor elections in: San Francisco; Waterbury, Conn.; the five Florida counties; St. Louis; San Juan County, N. M.; Queens County, N.Y.; and Reading, Penn.
On the criminal side, the Justice Department has 16 currently active cases involving allegations of voting fraud, voter intimidation and other charges. Each of the 94 U.S. attorneys has designated one district election official to oversee federal efforts at the ground level.
Since 2000, all but 13 states have taken some steps to improve their electoral procedures and upgrade their machinery, according to a recent report by the nonpartisan Election Reform Information Project. Earlier this year, President Bush signed into law a measure providing $3.9 billion to the states to replace outdated machines and upgrade other systems.
Complaints about possible discrimination in voting can be made to the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division at 1-800-253-3931. The agency's Public Integrity Section can be reached at 202-514-1412.