St. Paul, Minn. — If you liked 2000, you're going to love 2004. Lawsuits are already pending in several states, including Minnesota, over election procedures. On top of that, activist groups on both sides of the political equation have been registering thousands of first-time voters -- with charges and counter-charges about fraudulent registrations and deceitful practices.
Republicans have developed a nationwide network of attorneys and poll watchers whose job it will be, come election night, to challenge instances of suspected fraud. Eric Bearse is coordinating the GOP effort in Minnesota.
"That's why they're there, to ensure that the process works as intended, and that votes cast are legal, and we have an outcome that reflects the views of the people of this state," says Bearse.
The Republican emphasis is on "ballot integrity:" weeding out ineligible voters and making sure only proper votes are counted. But Democrats say there's an ulterior motive to the GOP's careful scrutiny.
"Ballot integrity is simply code-word for making it more difficult to register," says Jim Mogen, who is leading the Democrats' "Voter Protection Program" in Minnesota.
Mogen says too many procedural hurdles and challenges could depress turnout, particularly among first-time voters unfamiliar with the process. He says his squad will work to make sure as many voters as possible have access to the polls.
"We'll be prepared, both in district court as well as the Supreme Court, to address any individual that's harrassing people, any errors being performed by an election official, or any intimidation being performed by the Republican Party," says Mogen.
Over the past weeks, the Republican National Commitee has held several training seminars for election challengers, detailing their rights under Minnesota statute to question someone's eligibility to vote. They also took the step of inviting Republican election judges to the closed-door sessions. That's caused some concern among local election officials.
Although election judges are expected to have a party preference, they're also local government employees and are expected to be impartial. Susanne Griffin, who oversees elections for the city of Minneapolis, says a Republicans-only workshop could create confusion. She says judges should receive direction from local officials, not a partisan attorney's network.
"We don't know what it is they're instructing them, and will it be in conflict with what we're teaching them -- which is clearly spelled out in the law and it's all legally driven," says Griffin. "I do have some concerns about that, and if it might mix up some people, might confuse some people."
The prospect of a close election has become a full-employment-for-lawyers opportunity.
But Bearse of the GOP there's nothing improper about the poll-watching workshops, or the decision to include election judges in them.
"It never hurts to provide additional instruction on what the law allows and requires," says Bearse.
Outside groups will also have election monitors and attorneys on hand. A coalition of civil rights groups and labor unions has created the Election Protection Program to help voters navigate the ballot process.
The U.S. Department of Justice also will have attorneys on call throughout the country to respond to allegations of fraud or disenfrachisement. U.S. Attorney Tom Heffelfinger says that's standard practice -- but with new visibility this year.
"The prospect of a close election has become a full-employment-for-lawyers opportunity," says Heffelfinger. "However, it has been our experience in Minnesota that the types of election fraud that have been suspected in other states have not been visible here."
Heffelfinger and others says challenges and irregularities are rare in Minnesota. But passions are high this year -- and the lawyers are ready.