"There's no question that if you were to put police officers and sheriff's deputies at the polling places, it would have an intimidating effect," said Laughlin McDonald, director of the American Civil Liberties Union voting rights project. "There are thousands of precincts around the United States. We can't make them armed guardhouses."
In Maryland, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich (R) said the state is discussing security with federal authorities. "It's clear to everyone that Election Day 2004 is going to be quite different because of 9/11," he said.
Virginia's homeland security officials said they have discussed with registrars and police the need to balance access and security. "We have to have that absolute right balance, right in the middle," said George Foresman, security chief for Gov. Mark R. Warner (D).
Virginia officials also have urged local registrars, police departments, sheriff's offices and others to be ready to act swiftly in the event of an attack before or during Election Day that might interfere with voting.
Many registrars said they have for the first time developed detailed lists of alternative polling places. In Fairfax, each of the 220 precincts will have two alternatives "in opposite directions," said election manager Judy Flaig.
In Prince William, officials have had to make specific plans for a polling place on the Quantico Marine Base. If the nation's alert level rises, access to the base could be cut, leaving a precinct without a place to vote.
In Norfolk, election officials have decided to use their library bookmobile as a portable polling place, if necessary. In Fairfax, officials said they have made arrangements to use a special county bus for the same purpose.
Officials said they also have revamped their Election Day communications with poll workers in case a terrorist attack requires rapid notification to many precincts simultaneously.
In Fairfax, officials say they have implemented a secure instant message system that can broadcast text messages to thousands of pagers and cell phones. Poll workers who do not have personal cell phones will be given one, county officials said, and workers at polling places where cellular signals are weak will be given pagers.
State election officials in Virginia and Maryland said they will have the capability to move personnel and data to backup locations if their offices are unusable.
"All the mechanics are in place," said Virginia Secretary of the Electoral Board Jean Jensen.
Staff writers Phuong Ly, Matthew Mosk and John Wagner contributed to this report.