As President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry enter the final weeks of a tight presidential campaign, election officials in many key states are waging less noticed but equally partisan battles that could affect the outcome of the race.
In the battlegrounds of Ohio and Missouri, Republican secretaries of state have crafted election rules that Democrats say could disenfranchise legitimate voters likely to cast ballots for Kerry. Republicans say Democratic election officials in New Mexico and Iowa are making it easier for potential Kerry supporters to vote.
The disputed 2000 election cast a new light on the crucial role that secretaries of state play in crafting the rules that determine who can vote -- and whose votes are counted. Florida's then-secretary of state, Katherine Harris (R), was pilloried by Democrats when a series of decisions made by her office helped elect George W. Bush.
Election officials help determine what type of machines people use to vote, how ballots are printed, what identification voters must bring to the polls, how to get absentee ballots and countless other regulations. Already this year, with each party sensitive to every nuance of election law, issues as mundane as the weight of paper stock for new voter-registration forms are the source of controversy. Lawsuits have been filed or litigated in more than half a dozen swing states over state officials' interpretations of election law. Even in Maryland and Virginia, which are not battlegrounds this year, court battles have been waged over the role of state election officials and which candidates should be included on ballots.
"There's an unprecedented level of scrutiny," said Oregon's deputy secretary of state, Paddy McGuire (D). "Having an election decided by 537 votes in Florida made people see how decisions made by elections officials across this country can add up to electing the next leader of the free world."
Adding to the sensitivity is the fact that a number of chief election officials in key states are playing an active role in the presidential race.
Just as Harris served as co-chairwoman of Bush's 2000 Florida campaign, Ohio's J. Kenneth Blackwell (R) is co-chairing the president's effort in that state. Nevada's Dean Heller (R) and Arizona's Jan Brewer (R) are also active on behalf of Bush, as is Missouri's Matt Blunt (R), who is also running for governor. West Virginia's secretary of state, Joe Manchin III (D), is helping Kerry even as he runs for governor.
And while most election officials this year say they are determined to avoid the kind of partisan charges that dogged Harris for her role in the last presidential election, many of their decisions help the candidate whose party they share.
Take, for instance, a new federal law that requires all states to give voters whose names do not appear on the rolls a "provisional ballot" that will count if it can be determined after Election Day that the voter was properly registered.
Democrats see the provision as useful in correcting problems that caused eligible voters to be turned away from the polls in 2000.
Blackwell, Blunt and Republican election chiefs in Florida, Michigan and Colorado have been sued by Democratic groups for putting up hurdles in the counting of such ballots. Several, for instance, have ruled that ballots cast by eligible voters should be disqualified if they are cast in the wrong precinct, a move Democrats say disproportionately hurts poor voters, who may be more likely to move about.
Late last month, Blackwell came under fire for telling county election officials in Ohio to reject new voter registrations turned in on forms that do not meet an arcane law that mandates that the forms be on paper stock of a certain weight.
Though Blackwell subsequently said he would not enforce the law, Democrats and the League of Women Voters worry that his conflicting directives could cause confusion and prompt legal challenges in a state where the Democrats have signed up more new voters than the Republicans.
"I can't tell you what his motives are," said Ohio Democratic Party spokesman Dan Trevas, "but I can say that most of his actions help Republicans."