All Eyes on New Mexico

There was a time when Elian Gonzalez, Ted Bundy and swarms of elderly transplants threatened to ruin the Sunshine State's reputation. But since 2000, Florida has come to be known worldwide for voter suppression and intimidation, not to mention its assortment of chads – hanging, pregnant and dimpled. While events surrounding the last presidential election cast some serious doubt on Florida's credibility, they also mobilized citizens nationwide to ensure that voters' rights would be protected in subsequent elections.

In New Mexico, Attorney General Patricia Madrid has decided to deploy 50 lawyers and investigators from her office to help monitor the election. Moreover, organizations such as Election Protection and the Republican Party will have members out en masse on Election Day to see to it that residents vote without interference.

"Election Protection was really birthed by what happened in 2000 in Florida," says Alma Rosa Silva-Banuelos of the People for the American Way Foundation's Election Protection office in New Mexico. While the organization existed before the 2000 Florida debacle, following the incident, it grew into a coalition consisting of People for the American Way, the Unity 4 Campaign, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and others. Grace Ali, media contact for the Lawyers Committee of the group, says Election Protection is nonpartisan and primarily tries to educate voters about their rights. "We set up hotlines nationwide, where voters can call a toll-free number, 1-866-OUR-VOTE," she says. "It's set up by lawyers, law students and legal volunteers. It's basically getting free assistance to our voters who encounter problems. Any type of problem, our legal volunteers will speak to the poll monitor and let them know what is required by law."

Silva-Banuelos says Election Protection volunteers will be outside of polling places with signs instructing voters to contact the group if they experience trouble. Members in 48 cities nationwide will also field calls Nov. 2. In New Mexico, Election Protection will hit Albuquerque, Las Cruces, Taos, Roswell, Carlsbad and Silver City. And in conjunction with Native Vote 2004, they will cover parts of San Juan and McKinley counties. In Santa Fe, the group will have 40 lawyers and 200 poll monitors. "Our poll monitors will be handing out the New Mexico voter bill of rights," Silva-Banuelos says.

By having 50 lawyers and investigators at polling places during this election rather than the usual five to 10, Madrid is kicking voter protection into high gear. "Given all the increased attention there's been concerning the conduct of a fair election and all of these questions about voter suppression and voter intimidation, Attorney General Madrid thought it appropriate to have a substantial presence around the state," says chief deputy attorney general Stuart Bluestone.

Lawyers and investigators to be dispatched by Madrid are currently being trained. Officials in the Attorney General's Office also are speaking with both the Republican and Democratic Parties about their concerns. "We're going to have a very active Election Day presence," says Matt Farrauto, communications director for the Democratic Party of New Mexico. "We have thousands upon thousands of volunteers who will be working with us. We do have a group of people who are educating voters on Election Day about voting rights. The only reason it's necessary is because Republicans have tried to intimidate and suppress votes in the past." While the Republican Party of New Mexico said the group would have poll monitors on Election Day, representatives would not comment further on voting concerns.

To thwart potential complications before Election Day, Farrauto encourages people to participate in early voting. However, if a voter has a problem, he suggests they address election officials and leave contact information with the Democratic Party, "so we can record any inconveniences and address them."

Bluestone is hoping that public knowledge that polls will be heavily monitored will have a "calming effect on the different polling locations" that will squash problems from the outset. Silva-Banuelos agrees. "For this election," she says, "the whole world will be watching."

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