Still, in recent months, elections officials in swing states have reported thousands of problematic registrations, including addresses that do not exist, duplicate names, the names of deceased voters and names that appear to be copied out of a phone book by the same person. Republicans have pointed to such registrations as evidence of possible widespread election fraud.
"Violations of voter registration laws, registering dead or nonexistent people to vote, creates the opportunity for Democrats to disenfranchise legitimate voters on Election Day, which on any scale is something that should concern all voters," said Republican National Committee spokeswoman Christine Iverson.
Elections officials of both parties, however, say that bad registrations do not necessarily translate into Election Day fraud. New identification laws, as well as signature checks, make ballot-box stuffing extremely difficult, they say.
Gary Stoff, the GOP director of elections in St. Louis, said that registration irregularities experienced there are "not an attempt to commit fraud," but rather the result of greedy workers who get paid for every new voter they sign up or already-registered voters who forget and register again.
In Ohio, Summit County Board of Elections Director Bryan Williams said the local sheriff and the U.S. attorney's office are investigating irregularities in about 1,500 registrations sent to his office, including a batch mailed by the AFL-CIO. But, he said, he sees no evidence that the purpose is to "bloat the ballot box," in part because of the logistical difficulty of signing a fake person up to vote and then finding a body to vote in that name.
The Justice Department points to its success in rooting out vote-buying problems in local elections in Appalachia. Two men were convicted last week of buying votes during a 2002 judicial election in Kentucky, and several West Virginia residents were recently charged in a vote-buying probe by a U.S. attorney in that state.
But many Democrats are suspicious of the prosecutors' motives in the most recent cases -- most of which involve GOP complaints and alleged wrongdoing on behalf of Democratic candidates -- and are uneasy with Ashcroft's role in overseeing such probes. Ashcroft, a former Missouri governor and senator, came under fire during his 2001 confirmation for vetoing bills that would have promoted voter registration in St. Louis, a heavily African American Democratic stronghold.
John Hickey is the executive director of the Missouri Progressive Vote Coalition. The validity of the group's minority voter registration drive has been challenged by a conservative group whose directors have close ties to Ashcroft. "Look at his history," Hickey said. "I think it's chilling that all these old Ashcroft associates are trying to attack voter registrations instead of saying, 'Great, we want everyone to turn out.' "
Justice officials, while not commenting directly on criticism of Ashcroft, said the attorney general's Voting Access and Integrity Initiative, begun in October 2002, is largely a compendium of policies already on the books. In a statement, the department defended its voting rights record, saying that since 2001, it has filed 22 civil rights lawsuits to protect access to the polls, and in November expects to deploy "more voting rights observers than in any other time in recent history" to protect against discrimination. Sierra, the Justice spokesman, also stressed that prosecutors and FBI agents will not be monitoring polling places on Nov. 2.
But civil rights advocates worry that, in the case of criminal investigations such as the one in New Mexico, investigators will have to go door-to-door to question new registrants before balloting. In the 2002 South Dakota elections, state and federal agents questioned hundreds of newly registered Native Americans, a key constituency for Democrats in that state. The probe resulted in charges against one woman, which were subsequently dropped.
"Often there's no real basis for these fraud allegations," said Jonah Goldman of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. The New Mexico probe was launched in part at the request of Bernalillo County Sheriff Darren White, who chairs the county's Bush-Cheney campaign. The announcement came after a district court judge ruled against plaintiffs in a Republican-led lawsuit that sought at-the-poll identification requirements for new voters registered through drives. As proof that change is needed, the plaintiffs listed a number of questionable registrations in their lawsuit, including one from a 13-year-old. But several women whose registration cards were attached to the lawsuit testified they registered twice by mistake and that no fraud was involved.
Democratic groups have been pushing to register new voters in New Mexico, which Bush lost by 366 votes in 2000. The Democratic Party has testified that changing ID rules would disenfranchise some voters, and spokesman Matt Farrauto called the criminal probe "worrisome."
Iglesias's spokesman, Norman Cairns, said the FBI is investigating "questionable voter registrations." But he added: "Our objective is not in any way to influence this election."