Top attorneys with Virginia's Democratic Party gathered Tuesday night to begin training 600 volunteer lawyers to fan across the state on Election Day to monitor the voting process and provide legal advice if irregularities emerge.
Party officials said the effort, dubbed the 2004 Voter Protection Program, is fueled by the lingering fear of a Florida-style election debacle that could threaten the integrity of the process. They plan to hold five or six more training sessions over the next week.
"We see our roles as supporting a system and cleaning up its inevitable mistakes," said Michael Signer, the voter protection coordinator for the state party. "We're giving voters the confidence that the system will work for them."
Signer said the attorneys will stand outside polling places with other campaign workers and offer advice to voters who want it. He said they will also be on hand to advise party leaders if voting machines malfunction or there are other problems.
Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), a former civil rights lawyer, urged about 40 people at the party's headquarters to use their legal knowledge to make sure that every voter who wants to vote can do so.
"We're operating in a new world after the 2000 presidential elections," Kaine told them. "It's a world where we now know we have to have on-the-ground, at-the-polls people who know what the law is and can answer questions."
The Virginia effort is part of a nationwide push by both parties to have lawyers in place during what both sides expect to be a very close race. In 2000, lawyers descended on Florida only after it became clear that complaints about the state's election had the potential to alter the outcome of the presidential contest.
Virginia's Republicans are also recruiting lawyers. GOP officials said that they had found about 450 lawyers but that about 150 of them will be traveling to other battleground states.
"We have an Election Day lawyer operation to answer questions for people who run into questions about voting," said Ken Hutcheson, the state director of the Bush-Cheney campaign in Virginia.
Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore (R), chairman of Bush's campaign in the state, on Tuesday accused Democrats of using their attorneys to whip up fears of voting problems where none exists. He cited a section of a Democratic National Committee manual that he says urges party activists to fabricate charges of voter intimidation.
"Tim Kaine should repudiate any and all attempts by the Democrat Party of Virginia to abide by the Kerry-Edwards game plan of inventing false and baseless accusations of voter intimidation," said Kilgore, who is likely to run against Kaine in next year's gubernatorial election.
Democrats dismissed Kilgore's statement as election posturing. They said their effort is designed to help guard against voting problems -- including the potential that voters feel intimidated -- that have happened in Florida and elsewhere.
"That was a blatant and selective misreading of a manual for our volunteers in Colorado," Signer said.
Kaine said the lawyers were assembled to protect voter rights. "Why the attorney general would want to go on the attack about that, I don't know," he said.
Jean R. Jensen, secretary of the State Board of Elections, said Democratic attorneys have been in contact with her office about the procedures they need to follow on Election Day.
Jensen said they must be at least 40 feet from the polling location unless the party has designated a lawyer to be their official representative to monitor and track the voting. She said that she welcomes the presence of the parties' attorneys but that she is confident voting officials can handle any problems that might arise.
"That's exactly what our election officials and officers are trained to do," Jensen said. Regarding the Democratic attorneys, she added: "We've made it very clear what the rules are. If they don't obey the rules, they will be asked to leave."