On the north end of town, where the Anglos live, people lined up in large numbers Saturday at the Roswell Mall to take advantage of the early voting site there. But down on the south side, in the Hispanic neighborhood, the designated early voting venue was locked up tight -- closed for the weekend.

For community activist Bonnie Aria, that distinction says all you need to know about voting rights here in southern New Mexico, a rugged expanse of arid desert country that could play a key role in the 2004 election.

"Of course it's deliberate," Aria said. "Up where the Republicans live, they make it as easy as possible for anybody to vote. But in our part of town, the polling place is closed on the one day when working people could go vote. They're sending us a clear message: We're locked out."

Chaves County clerk Dave Kunko shook his head in wonder at that criticism. He noted that the county courthouse, the early voting site for the south side of Roswell, is routinely closed on weekends. Kunko said the county's early voting arrangements comply precisely with state law. "Anyway, anybody in the county could go up to the mall and vote on Saturday," Kunko said. "A lot of Hispanics are voting there."

In this tightly contested corner of a tightly contested state in a tossup election year, the presidential race is so close that both major candidates took the time to make personal visits here over the weekend -- President Bush to Alamogordo and Sen. John F. Kerry to Las Cruces. New Mexico was the closest state in the union in 2000 -- Bush lost by 366 votes -- and polls show the state evenly divided again this year.

And yet the substance of the political campaigns has taken a back seat, in the southern desert communities, to charges and countercharges involving the right to vote.

In a mass mailing, the Republican National Committee is citing Hispanic voter registration campaigns here as proof that "Democrats . . . will cheat in order to win." Hispanic advocates argue that the largely Republican power structure is trying "to discourage a disenfranchised community from voting," in the words of Stephen Arellano, of Citizens Against Un-American Voter Intimidation.

The Hispanic community is the nation's fastest-growing minority group. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that Hispanic voters could have a crucial impact this year in several battleground states: Florida, Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico.

Traditionally, the Hispanic vote has been mainly Democratic, and Democrats have launched major efforts to register new voters in Hispanic neighborhoods. New Mexico's Hispanic governor, Democrat Bill Richardson, says his group, Moving America Forward, has registered 30,000 Hispanics in the state this year.

But getting somebody registered is only half the battle, said Santiago Juarez, a Roswell lawyer who is working to turn out the Hispanic vote.

"It's not like somebody's going to beat you up if you try to vote," Juarez said. "It's much more subtle than that. It's more a feeling the Americanos have created, that our people don't belong in a voting booth.

"If some poll watcher challenges a little Hispanic grandmother because she forgot to change the address on her registration form, she is not going to stand there and fight. She just wants to get out of there fast, and avoid trouble."

Petra Morales, of Artesia, said she understands that kind of pressure. Her husband is the herdsman at a big dairy farm south of Roswell, and the Morales family home is on farm property. "I started to put up a yard sign for Kerry-Edwards," Morales recalled. "And my husband said, 'No, we'd better not.' His bosses are Anglos, and he was afraid that he might offend somebody if we put up a sign that was against Bush."

On the other hand, when Morales cast her early vote last week, she said, the poll workers were courteous and she had no problems.

The difference in perception is crystallized by a voting rights argument that went to the state Supreme Court this fall. County clerk Kunko interpreted state law as requiring most new registrants to produce some form of identification when they arrive to vote. Hispanic activists sued, and the high court ruled against Kunko, allowing most voters to cast a ballot without providing identification.

Kunko promises to follow the court ruling, but said he is mystified about the complaint. "People have to show ID whenever they use a credit card these days," he said. "Why is it difficult to show a license or an electric bill when you come in to vote?"

But Petra Morales is convinced the ID requirement was aimed mainly at Hispanics. "They would pick out Gonzales and Martinez and ask for IDs, but Smith and Johnson can walk right in," she said.

A similar dispute centers on the voting rights of ex-felons. Felons can vote in New Mexico after completing all parole and probation requirements. The county clerk, citing state law, said he will allow ex-felons to vote only if they produce documented proof that this condition has been met.

Aria, the local activist, considers that rule simple harassment. "The state has computers. They know the status on every one of these felons," she said. "So why do they force these guys to dig up some piece of paper they probably lost years ago?"

For Aria, the answer is clear. "So many of our young Chicanos are felons," she said. "The whole point of all these rules is to keep our people out."

In the final push to the polls, Hispanic leaders are planning parades and fiestas to spread the word that the Hispanic vote matters. Several communities are organizing caravans of "low riders" -- the souped-up sedans altered so that the body barely clears the road surface -- to lead voters to the polls on Nov. 2. "The idea is to show that voting is for Mexicanos, too," Juarez said. "It's to show that we can own this process, just like the Americanos do."

As in most other states, though, the feelings surrounding this election are so intense that many Hispanics are determined to turn out on Election Day, no matter what. "I'm excited to cast my first vote," said Heidi Carrillo, 24, a new registrant who was born in the United States to illegal immigrants. "They can ask for ID. They can make me last in the line. I don't care. I'm voting!"

"The idea is to show that voting is for Mexicanos, too," says Santiago Juarez, a Roswell activist working to turn out the Hispanic vote in southern New Mexico.