Earlier this month, U.S. Attorney David Iglesias in New Mexico launched a statewide criminal task force to investigate allegations of voter fraud in the upcoming presidential election. The probe came after a sheriff who co-chairs President Bush's campaign in the state's largest county complained about thousands of questionable registrations turned in by Democratic-leaning groups.
"It appears that mischief is afoot and questions are lurking in the shadows," Iglesias told local reporters.
But Democratic Secretary of State Rebecca Vigil-Giron, named to the task force to allay concerns that the probe was politically motivated, said the investigation is unnecessary.
"This is just an attempt to let people know that Big Brother is watching," Vigil-Giron, New Mexico's chief electionsofficial, said in an interview. "It may well be aimed at trying to keep people away from the polls."
The probe is one of several criminal inquiries into alleged voter fraud launched in recent weeks in key presidential battlegrounds, including Ohio and West Virginia, as part of a broader initiative by U.S. Attorney General John D. Ashcroft targeting bogus registrations and other election crimes. The Justice Department has asked U.S. attorneys across the country to meet with local elections officials and launch publicity campaigns aimed at getting people to report irregularities.
The focus on registration problems comes amid a fiercely contested presidential race and at a time when many Democrats are still angry over the 2000 election, in which ballot irregularities in Florida prompted the U.S. Supreme Court to declare the winner. And it puts the Justice Department in the middle of a charged and partisan debate over when aggressive fraud enforcement becomes intimidation.
Justice officials say it is the department's duty to prosecute illegal activities at the polls, and stress that civil rights lawyers are also working to ensure that legitimate voters can cast their ballots without interference. Justice Department spokesman Bryan Sierra said that "the department must strike a proper balance and we cannot be deterred from investigating allegations of criminal voter fraud."
Civil rights advocates and many Democrats, however, complain that the department is putting too much emphasis on investigating new voter registrations in poor and minority communities -- which tend to favor Democrats -- and not enough on ensuring that those voters do not face discrimination at the polls. More attention should be given to potential fraud in the use of absentee ballots, which tend to favor Republicans, the critics say.
They also charge that announcing criminal investigations within weeks of an election -- as was done in New Mexico on Sept. 7 -- is likely to scare legitimate voters away from the polls.
"I'm concerned that the Justice Department is being overtly political," said Nancy Zirkin, deputy director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. "Bells are going off for me because searching for voter fraud has often been a proxy for intimidating voters."
The Justice Department's guidelines say prosecutors "must refrain from any conduct which has the possibility of affecting the election itself."
"A criminal investigation by armed, badged federal agents runs the obvious risk of chilling legitimate voting and campaign activities," the department's manual on elections crime says. "Federal prosecutors and investigators should be extremely careful to not conduct overt investigations during the pre-election period or while the election is underway."
Experts on both sides acknowledge that faulty or bogus voter registrations are a persistent problem. For example, one study found that 5,400 dead people cast votes over a 20-year period in Georgia. But experts question whether the phenomenon is widespread, and elections officials say they are most concerned about absentee ballot fraud.
"The problem is, you don't know if the voter is being coerced, misled or bribed, because it all happens away from public scrutiny," said Denise Lamb, New Mexico's election director.