But Oregon Deputy Secretary of State Paddy J. McGuire (D) said he believes the intent of such a message is not to protect the homeland but to "scare people away from the polls."
Some Democrats are suspicious of the timing of the announcements, noting that warnings about an election-season threat came on April 19, when Bush was close to his low in the polls; on Aug. 1, right after the Democratic National Convention; and last week, as the president's post-National Republican Convention bounce ebbed.
In a statement last week, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, warned that it is possible for terrorism response plans created in the name of election security to discourage voting and "become a thinly veiled partisan tactic to tilt the elections."
Spokesmen for Ashcroft and Ridge emphasized that the effort to secure the election was initiated and led by the states, which administer elections. Federal law normally prohibits the presence of armed federal agents near polling sites. They also noted that the effort is supported by the National Governors Association, chaired by Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner (D), whose aides have said it is vital to address the issue of election security in a post-Sept. 11, 2001, era.
"We do not do politics at Homeland Security," Ridge spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said.
Nevertheless, partisan tensions were apparent as officials of the NGA and the National Association of Secretaries of State and homeland security experts sparred last week over the timing and content of a public announcement.
Rebecca Vigil-Giron (D), New Mexico secretary of state and president of the secretaries of state association, said the directive sent out by her organization to the states to step up preparations to safeguard national balloting has been "blown way out of proportion." She said election officials must plan a coordinated response to an election disrupted by a terrorist attack, but she said, "I want to make very sure that these plans don't look anything like voter suppression."
Still, civil rights organizations are worried. People for the American Way Foundation issued a report concluding that various efforts in the name of combating voter fraud have replaced Jim Crow-era laws restricting ballot access as a way to hold down minority voting.
Elliott Mincberg, the foundation's legal director, said he suspected that efforts to protect against terrorism could have the same effect. "The devil is in the details," he said, "and I want to be sure that this is not done in a way that scares people away from the polls."