A push by the 50 states to coordinate anti-terrorism activities before Election Day is drawing warnings from Democrats, civil rights groups and election officials, who say excessive measures could suppress turnout among urban and minority voters.
They contend that an elevated national threat warning -- and any actions in response -- could scare away voters, intentionally or not, especially in cities, which tend to vote Democratic. Voting rights advocates worry that fear of terrorism could lead to federal agents and local police being posted at polling places, a tactic that has historically been used in some places to intimidate minority citizens.
Such generalized threats "could have the consequence of discouraging people that may otherwise be motivated to vote," said Jeff Fischer, senior adviser to IFES, a Washington-based organization that promotes democratic elections.
"There is a fine line that public officials must walk," weighing the specifics of the threat, communicating openly with voters and reacting judiciously, he said.
Citing the March 11 bombings in Madrid before elections in Spain, Department of Homeland Security officials have warned that terrorists might try a similar assault here before the Nov. 2 elections. In recent weeks there has been a focus on Election Day, although the government has said it has no intelligence about the timing, status or target of a possible attack.
State and federal officials issued a security planning bulletin last week urging governors, state homeland security advisers and election officials to coordinate preparations and contingency plans. The document advised officials to think through how they would handle threat information, secure or change polling places and ballot-counting centers, guard members of the electoral college, and communicate to the public.
In interviews, the bulletin's authors said they were aware of the political minefield surrounding the issue. But they said that if there were an attack and elections and homeland security officials were unprepared, the consequences could be more disruptive.
"There is no doubt that the threat that is posed nationwide prior to the election here in this country is very real," said Bryan Sierra, spokesman for the Justice Department. "We have an absolute responsibility to provide that information to state and local governments, who are charged with protecting their citizens."
Sensitivity over the political fallout of the warnings is especially high because of the narrow partisan divide in the country and bitter memories of the 2000 presidential race, which turned on tiny vote margins in some states and partly on decisions made by Florida election officials.
Analysts say that regardless of intent, terrorism warnings have shaped voter attitudes, an influence that could grow if the warnings are extended to polling sites. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, said people who oppose President Bush "see a clear pattern to scare the electorate," while his supporters see "an administration vigilantly protecting the country." As for undecided or swing voters, "raising the public's anxiety level helps the candidacy of George Bush, because at the moment the polls suggest the public feels it's safer to have George Bush as president," she said.
Critics of the warnings point to Minnesota Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer's effort to raise terrorism awareness as an example of how election security measures could chill turnout. Kiffmeyer (R) gave local election officials fliers that warned voters to watch for unattended packages, vehicles "riding low on springs" and "homicide bombers."
Bombers may have a "shaved head or short hair," "smell of unusual herbal/flower water or perfume," wear baggy clothes or appear to be whispering to themselves, the flier warned.
Several local election officials were outraged over what they saw as an attempt to discourage voting with excessively dire warnings and stereotyping descriptions that could single out voters from specific religious, racial or ethnic groups for harassment. They refused to distribute the fliers.
Kiffmeyer said the language of the bulletin was taken from Minnesota's homeland security agency, which developed it with federal guidance. "What if something happens? I don't want to say, 'I didn't want to scare people, so I didn't pass out this information,' " Kiffmeyer said. "And do people really think this isn't on the minds of the public when they saw what happened in Madrid and in Russia?"
But Oregon Deputy Secretary of State Paddy J. McGuire (D) said he believes the intent of such a message is not to protect the homeland but to "scare people away from the polls."
Some Democrats are suspicious of the timing of the announcements, noting that warnings about an election-season threat came on April 19, when Bush was close to his low in the polls; on Aug. 1, right after the Democratic National Convention; and last week, as the president's post-National Republican Convention bounce ebbed.
In a statement last week, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, warned that it is possible for terrorism response plans created in the name of election security to discourage voting and "become a thinly veiled partisan tactic to tilt the elections."
Spokesmen for Ashcroft and Ridge emphasized that the effort to secure the election was initiated and led by the states, which administer elections. Federal law normally prohibits the presence of armed federal agents near polling sites. They also noted that the effort is supported by the National Governors Association, chaired by Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner (D), whose aides have said it is vital to address the issue of election security in a post-Sept. 11, 2001, era.
"We do not do politics at Homeland Security," Ridge spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said.
Nevertheless, partisan tensions were apparent as officials of the NGA and the National Association of Secretaries of State and homeland security experts sparred last week over the timing and content of a public announcement.
Rebecca Vigil-Giron (D), New Mexico secretary of state and president of the secretaries of state association, said the directive sent out by her organization to the states to step up preparations to safeguard national balloting has been "blown way out of proportion." She said election officials must plan a coordinated response to an election disrupted by a terrorist attack, but she said, "I want to make very sure that these plans don't look anything like voter suppression."
Still, civil rights organizations are worried. People for the American Way Foundation issued a report concluding that various efforts in the name of combating voter fraud have replaced Jim Crow-era laws restricting ballot access as a way to hold down minority voting.
Elliott Mincberg, the foundation's legal director, said he suspected that efforts to protect against terrorism could have the same effect. "The devil is in the details," he said, "and I want to be sure that this is not done in a way that scares people away from the polls."