Election officials and law enforcement agencies across the region are putting in place contingency plans to deal with any sudden spike in terror warnings over the next three weeks or the possibility of attacks at polling places on Election Day.
In a memo sent yesterday to each local registrar, Virginia's top election official urged a "delicate balance" between enhancing security to prevent terrorism and the need to avoid intimidating voters with an unnecessary show of force at the polls. Some registrars have opted for visible security changes, including placing uniformed police at polling places. Others are playing down the threat for fear of scaring voters and poll workers.
The schism underscores the difficulty officials are having in balancing voting rights against the uncertain but well-publicized warning that terrorists might try to disrupt the nation's Nov. 2 presidential election. Civil liberties advocates warn that too heavy a police presence might violate federal law.
U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials have warned of a vague election threat. Last month, the National Governors Association, in consultation with Homeland Security, sent a bulletin to the 50 states and the District that contained Election Day guidelines for coordinating police, tips for ballot-counting security and legal advice about ordering emergency election changes. But they offered no specific guidance and, for the most part, left it up to each municipality and county across the country to decide how to act. "State and local elections are administered under state and local law," said Brian Roehrkasse, a spokesman for Homeland Security.
In Maryland, officials said they are reviewing emergency procedures and stepping up police patrols. Montgomery County police said they are still considering whether to station officers at polling places. District officials said they have requested "upgraded support" from the D.C. police department for the election.
Election officials in Chesterfield County, near Richmond, have already decided to post an armed police officer at each of the county's 62 polling places for all of Election Day. The registrar there, a 16-year veteran of the Richmond Police Department, said concerns about intimidation pale in the face of terrorism.
"It's the way things are now. It's regrettable, but I think it's how we have to act," said General Registrar Lawrence C. Haake III. "We're in such a world now that either we've got to be prepared for anything or suffer the consequences of failing to prepare."
Prince William County officers will roam close to polling places, dropping in to check for suspicious cars. They also are training precinct workers to spot danger signs, officials said.
Registrar Betty Weimer said Prince William police will be posted at voting locations only if the nation's terror alert is raised or if terrorist "chatter" gathered by intelligence agencies indicates a more direct threat.
But other local governments have firmly rejected having visible signs of enhanced security and say people probably will notice no difference when they vote.
Maggi Luca, secretary of the Electoral Board in Fairfax County, said the county's security efforts will be invisible. She declined to elaborate, but she said Haake's decision to post uniformed officers at the polls was wrong.
"I don't want voters to be frightened," Luca said. "Can you imagine how intimidating that would be? We're not doing that."
Civil liberties groups and minority organizations across the nation have also expressed concern that a higher police presence at voting places could stifle turnout.
In 2000, black voters in Florida complained that police checkpoints scared some from casting ballots in the very close election. The charges brought back echoes from the nation's civil rights history, when government power was used throughout the South to turn away black voters.