Legions of lawyers, party volunteers, paid activists and even foreign observers will descend on polling places across the country today in what promises to be the most heavily monitored presidential election in U.S. history.
The tens of millions of voters heading to the polls will face new election laws and, in many places, new voting machines -- aimed at remedying the problems that produced the bitterly disputed outcome four years ago. But many election officials are worried that some of the changes could instead ensure a repeat in a race as tightly contested as the one between President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry.
An army of lawyers from both parties will be manning polls in battleground states, and the legal wrangling over ballot issues continued to rage hours before the polls were to open. In Ohio, the GOP's plans to mount an aggressive program challenging voters at the polls was upheld by a federal appellate court.
In other battleground states, Democrats have plans to challenge the challengers. Democratic officials in Philadelphia, for example, have threatened to file federal lawsuits against individual poll challengers who violate citizens' voting rights through harassment or intimidation.
Election officials also are fretting about the impact of provisional ballots, which are used by people whose names do not appear on voter rolls. Such ballots cannot be counted until after Election Day and, for the first time, are being mandated nationwide. Officials and observers also worry about voting machines, whether new and untested or old and problematic.
Given these and other problems, election directors in battleground states are girding for long lines, legal challenges and glitches that could leave the outcome in dispute for days or weeks.
"There will be several states where we will not know the winner on election night," predicted New Mexico Secretary of State Rebecca Vigil-Giron (D), president of the National Association of Secretaries of State. "If we do, great, I'll eat my words. But I don't think I will have to."
Jan Baran, a Republican election lawyer not involved in this year's campaign, said: "If it's close, we'll be right back to where we were four years ago. It may not be the same issues, or the states, but there will be plenty of problems for lawyers and campaigns to fight about."
Despite the problems, election officials across the country stress that they have gone to great lengths to ensure fair balloting. Poll workers have undergone more detailed training, registrars have been briefed on laws governing voting in their states, and voters across the country have received guides that spell out their rights and specify their polling places. A surge in early voting could take the strain off the polling system today.
Extra security is also in place, reflecting concerns about terrorism in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and deep suspicions on both sides that the other party is up to no good. In Lake County, Ohio, the sheriff's department is guarding voting machines with the same vigilance "as they do the nuclear power plant," according to election director Jan Clair.
Robert A. Pastor, a longtime international election observer who directs the Center for Democracy and Election Management at American University, predicted "a very chaotic election" that may be more akin to contests seen in developing countries.
And DeForest B. Soaries Jr., chairman of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, worries that advocacy for the two candidates "is turning into acrimony and vitriol that is dangerous. Even if we have a mess, I'm hoping we have a civil mess," he said.
Here is a look at some of the key obstacles that election officials in the battleground states must overcome.
Challenges at the Polls
Both parties have long placed poll watchers in key precincts throughout the nation, but actual challenges to voter eligibility are relatively rare. That is expected to change today.