WASHINGTON - Legions of attorneys and election monitors are fanning out to polling places around the country this week with their eyes peeled for funny business at the ballot box.
Lawyers from both parties, a host of civil rights groups, the Justice Department and the private sector are gearing up to scrutinize Tuesday's voting. But they're not all looking for the same thing.
Republicans are dispatching lawyers to watch for fraud - instances where people vote twice or impersonate a voter, for example, or otherwise violate election laws. Democrats and civil rights groups, on the other hand, are deploying scores of attorneys to make sure people are not intimidated at the polls or denied their right to vote.
Attorney General John Ashcroft has assigned U.S. attorneys in all 50 states to make their offices available to local election officials to ensure that the balloting is clean.
"They will receive all complaints and allegations of either fraud or voter intimidation or voting irregularities," said Jorge Martinez, a spokesman for the Justice Department.
The stakes are high. This is the first national election since the fiasco of 2000, which earned its infamous place in history books when numerous voting irregularities - particularly rampant in Florida - led to an Election Day breakdown and a contested presidential vote.
It is also an election in which a handful of too-close-to-call races will decide control of a divided Congress, where Democrats control the Senate by one seat and Republicans hold the House by just six.
"This could easily be the margin of error in any of those close races," said Stephen D. Ansolabehere, a political science professor and elections analyst at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
As attorneys for the two parties have drawn up sample legal complaints, volunteered for voter-assistance hot lines and trained to provide on-the-spot advice at the polls, problems have begun to spring up.
September primaries in Florida offered disturbing reminders of the last election's problems, with the late opening of polls, technical glitches with new touch-screen voting machines and confused poll workers contributing to the chaos.
More recently, elections in several states have been marred by allegations of fraud or vote suppression. The Justice Department is investigating Republican allegations of voter registration fraud on American Indian reservations in South Dakota that tend to favor Democrats. Democrats, meanwhile, have accused Republicans of intimidating black voters during early voting in Arkansas.
Both states feature hotly contested Senate races.
A coalition of civil rights groups is leading an "Election Protection" program in 20 states. It's intended to inform voters of their rights, advocate for them on Election Day if they are challenged, and receive calls on a national hot line from people with questions or concerns.
The project has compiled election law manuals for each state. And it will post attorneys in six states that are considered ripe for abuses - Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Nevada, Texas and Wisconsin - to provide legal services on Election Day.
Attorneys for the civil rights groups and the Democratic Party are ready, for example, to advise voters that in most states, including Maryland, they have the right to vote without showing identification.
Republicans stress the importance of verifying that voters are who they say they are. But Democrats note that only 11 states require identification - and some of them allow people who lack documentation to fill out a form and cast a vote anyway.
"What we want to try to provide is same-day legal relief so that as problems arise, they can be resolved on the spot and affect the election right then," said Ralph G. Neas, president of People for the American Way, a liberal advocacy group.
Though it is focused on protecting the rights of minority voters, who have historically voted disproportionately for Democrats, the Election Protection coalition is not affiliated with either party. But many of the attorneys standing by at the polls this year come with a distinctly political agenda.
In recent days, Democrats have criticized Republicans for compiling and giving to election administrators a list of more than 3,000 people who are suspected of having voted twice in 2000. Democrats say that the list is inaccurate and that circulating the names is meant to harass or intimidate voters who may have done nothing wrong.
Republican officials decline to comment on the list or discuss what their lawyers will be doing Tuesday.
The Republican Party is "entirely focused on our get-out-the-vote effort," said Dan Ronayne, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee.