Full Coverages>World>US Election>Opinion Poll

Polls get extra security on threats
Updated: 2004-10-22 09:10

Election officials are beefing up security and taking other precautions at many of the nation's 200,000 polling places amid continuing concern that al-Qaida terrorists are intent on disrupting the U.S. political process.

Some officials are increasing police patrols and assigning plainclothes officers to monitor voting sites on Election Day. Others are taking steps to secure ballot boxes, set up emergency communications systems and locate backup polling places in the event of an attack.

"We have to prepare for the worst situation," said Brenda Fisher, elections director for Anne Arundel County in Maryland.

FBI and Homeland Security Department officials stress that a steady stream of intelligence indicating the threat of an election-year threat is general in nature, with no specific indications that terrorists might strike polling places. But elections officials say they can't discount the possibility that al-Qaida might be attracted to long lines of voters to make a violent statement against democracy.

Many say the March 11 terror attack on Madrid's commuter trains, which killed 191 people, was a factor in the defeat of Spain's then-ruling party in elections three days later.

"Spain is certainly at the forefront of our minds," said Gary Bartlett, executive director of the North Carolina State Board of Elections. "An attack anywhere in the country could have a chilling effect on voting."

At the same time, officials nationwide say a heavy law enforcement presence could frighten voters away from polls — the exact opposite of their utmost priority.

In New Mexico, Bernalillo County Clerk Mary Herrera said she is hiring more poll "troubleshooters" this year to "keep an extra eye out" but is not using off-duty police or sheriff's deputies.

"I didn't want the voters to feel intimidated or scared," Herrera said.

A few weeks ago, the National Governors Association, National Association of Secretaries of State and other groups circulated a letter to states, counties and cities urging officials to plan ahead for the possibility of a terror attack on Election Day.

"The states have sovereignty over elections. The federal government does not," said Meredith Imwalle, spokeswoman for the secretaries of state association.

Given the limited federal role, there are no plans to station FBI agents or other U.S. law enforcement personnel at or near any polling places, officials said. Homeland Security spokeswoman Katy Mynster said the federal government regularly shares intelligence about the potential threat with state and local officials responsible for voter safety.

"We still remain concerned about al-Qaida's desire to attack," Mynster said. "We do not have any specific information identifying a time, place or method."

The Justice Department will dispatch about 1,000 election observers and monitors to polling places around the country, but their job is mainly to watch for violations of voting rights and to ensure access to the polls. None are law enforcement officers or prosecutors.

Many election officials say they are doing little different this year, given the vague nature of the terror threat. Some say the al-Qaida threat is just the latest in a long line of potential election problems that require advance planning.

"We've had natural disasters, loss of power, a tree falls down and blocks a voting place," said Roger Shatzkin, spokesman for the New Jersey Office of Counterterrorism.

"Just because of the intense and emotional nature of elections, sometimes people are tense at polling places, and things happen," said Minneapolis elections chief Susanne Griffith. "We're prepared to deal with those situations."

Others say they are focusing on training poll workers to ensure they know what to do and who to contact in a terrorist attack. Carlos Castillo Jr., election commissioner in Douglas County, Neb., said each of his 2,000 workers has been given a hot line number to call if necessary.

"From the outside, It's not going to look any different," Castillo said. "We don't want to disrupt the process. That's the last thing we want to do."

Michael Chitwood, police chief in Portland, Maine, said he recently gave a security briefing to local election wardens noting that the ringleader of the Sept. 11, 2001 hijack attacks, Mohamed Atta, started his deadly journey that morning at Portland's airport.

"The audience was attentive. In some ways they were scared to death. But we had to make sure they knew the possibilities," Chitwood said. "It's voting in the post-9/11 world. There's a new sense of vulnerability in our country whether it's Manhattan or Portland, Maine."

  Story Tools