Maryland Democrats plan to train volunteer lawyers to watch polling places around the state on Election Day to make sure voters aren't wrongfully turned away, while the state's Republicans will have their own legal corps trying to prevent voter fraud.
Both political parties are flooding battleground states with lawyers to avoid a repeat of the problems that beset Florida voting in 2000. And even with Maryland appearing solidly in the Democratic column for this presidential election, the parties plan to duke it out here, too, in a possible preview of what is expected to be a hotly contested gubernatorial race in 2006.
Democrats said they are concerned about backlogs in local election offices because of the tens of thousands of newly registered voters this year.
The party wants to make sure that voters are allowed to cast provisional ballots even if they have not received voter registration cards or their names do not appear on precinct rolls. The party's coordinated campaign is also looking to avoid any irregularities, such as late precinct opening times or technical glitches that could lower turnout.
"In some ways, we're the victims of our own success as the large number of new voters is creating an unprecedented stress on the system for the State Board of Elections," said Heather Mizeur, Maryland state director for the Kerry campaign. "We don't want the unintended consequence to be voter suppression by the assumption that they are unable to vote without their card."
Deborah Martinez, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Republican Party, said that the GOP has also been fielding calls from new voters worried about whether their registrations have been processed and that she is similarly concerned about whether they will be discouraged.
But the focus of the GOP's volunteer lawyers is to make sure no one votes who isn't supposed to.
"There is a rich history of voter fraud in this state. We're basically preparing for any shenanigans that might go on with the opposition and making sure that Republican voters get their fair shake in the state," Martinez said.
Democrats said their effort is important not only to help John Kerry sew up Maryland's 10 electoral votes, but also to make sure nothing discourages the thousands of people who registered as members of their party in the past two years from voting this time - and again in two more years in what is expected to be a strong challenge to Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
"We're using this election and the momentum from this election as a backdrop to 2006 and sending a strong message to Ehrlich that he's on his way out the door," Mizeur said.
Mary Cramer Wagner, director of the State Board of Elections' voter registration division, said local election boards have mostly caught up with the backlog of registrations, thanks in large part to help from temporary workers and, in some cases, assistance from county executive offices.
New registrations postmarked before the Oct. 12 deadline are still coming in to some offices, which has delayed the printing of precinct logs that show poll workers who is registered at a particular polling place, Wagner said. But counties where that continues to be a problem plan to print their lists this weekend and write in by hand any registrations that are processed after that, Wagner said.
Voters do not need to have their registration cards to vote, and if a voter's name does not appear on a precinct log, he or she will be allowed to cast a provisional ballot, which would be counted if elections officials later determine that the voter is properly registered.
Wagner said a final ruling hasn't been made, but the tentative plan is to count provisional ballots for voters who cast them in the wrong precinct, but only in races for which they should be eligible to vote.
But to avoid the issue, those who don't know what precinct they live in should call their local election board, Wagner said.