Mounting concerns about voter registration foul-ups, election machine defects and other problems that might undermine the presidential election have spurred dozens of organizations to plan extraordinary efforts to scrutinize the polls on Nov. 2.
More than 25,000 poll watchers, including lawyers and computer experts, are expected outside and inside precinct stations to report problems and in some cases to intervene if they believe poll workers are violating voter rights or making technical mistakes.
The largest effort is being mounted by a coalition of 60 liberal and independent organizations that includes churches, civic groups, unions and minority rights groups; it has created a massive computerized tracking system to follow possible election day breakdowns.
But poll watchers will also include elite computer scientists, county election officials and even European observers who believe the U.S. system is flawed.
"If there are a lot of problems, we want to be involved," said Mark Monacelli, president of the National Assn. of County Recorders, Election Officials and Clerks. "People are less confident in the system than in the past. We are inundated with conspiracy theorists."
Monacelli, an appointed county official in Duluth, Minn., said he planned to dispatch a handful of people from his association to battleground states to observe elections. Given the increased politicization and citizen distrust of the election process, he said, "We are going down a dangerous path in this country."
In some respects, the 2004 election is a watershed in the evolution of U.S. elections. Hundreds of counties are using new election equipment for the first time. And federal reforms under the Help America Vote Act are imposing new procedures on local customs that traditionally come in many distinct flavors.
If the presidential election is close again, then all of these changes are bound to strain the system and lead to legal challenges, experts say. As a result, groups are putting in observers to detail every incident that might affect one vote or thousands of votes.
"There is distrust and lack of confidence in the system," said Elliot Mincberg, legal director for People for the American Way Foundation, a key member of the Election Protection coalition.
Because liberal groups like the People for the American Way Foundation are involved, many Republicans dismiss proclamations that the effort is nonpartisan. There is suspicion among conservatives that the coalition is laying the groundwork for legal challenges to the outcome of the presidential race, particularly on such issues as voter registration and the provisional ballots that are now required under federal law.
But Mincberg rejects such concerns, saying the 60 organizations in his coalition include the League of Women Voters, the National Council of Churches and other nonpartisan groups that he says are simply concerned with making sure every eligible voter gets fair treatment.
The coalition also includes such giant organizations as the AFL-CIO, the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People and the Service Employees International Union.
The main purpose of the Election Protection coalition is to watch for civil rights violations, an issue that resulted in litigation in several states in the 2000 election. The group plans to have 25,000 volunteers, including 5,000 lawyers, in 3,500 precincts in 17 states.
The group is contributing its data to a nationwide computerized incident reporting system that provides a running tally of problems. So far, there are about 345 incidents listed on the system now, including those that occurred during the primaries. The incident data is available at www.voteprotect.org.
A second major thrust in poll watching involves the monitoring of touch-screen voting equipment by technical and academic experts. Unlike civil rights concerns, which tend to be a Democratic focus, the efforts to build safeguards in electronic voting have been supported by Democrats and Republicans, in Washington and in many states.
VerifiedVoting.org, a group founded by Stanford University professor David Dill, is training poll watchers so that they might identify technical breakdowns, particularly involving optical scanners and touch-screen systems. He hopes to get 1,300 volunteers nationwide.
Dill acknowledges that simply watching a touch-screen machine is unlikely to identify malfunctions or fraud; and in some jurisdictions his volunteers will not even be allowed inside the poll buildings.
But he adds, "We hope this will encourage communities to be more careful."
A cornerstone of Dill's effort is to require all electronic voting machines to produce a paper audit trail that voters can verify before leaving the polling booth, to help ensure that discrepancies in software or hardware will not prevent a hand recount.