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."
In the next few weeks, expect a crop of outsiders to flock to New Mexico. They're not coming to peruse the state's famed art galleries or to hike its enchanted lands; the draw for this latest influx is the upcoming presidential election. Because New Mexico is a swing state, with Gore winning New Mexico by just a couple hundred votes in the last election, supporters of both Bush and Kerry are traveling from as near as Texas and as far as Maine to help sway New Mexicans to their candidate of choice. Jennifer Nation, a University of Texas at Austin student, decided to drive 14 hours from Houston to Albuquerque in hopes of getting New Mexicans to turn out for Kerry.
"I haven't given up on Texas," says the 20-year-old, "but I do think it's absolutely going to go to Bush, so I wanted to come to a swing state." Now that she's in New Mexico, Nation has been doing data entry, compiling information about Kerry campaign volunteers and updating information on voters. She will soon go door to door to garner more voters for Kerry. "I feel like the result of this election will not only affect us for the next four years but for the next 40 years," Nation says.
At 59, the last presidential campaign Peter Forbes involved himself in was the one for Eugene McCarthy. But because he's concerned about the deficit, the environment and terrorism, Forbes has traveled from Massachusetts to Santa Fe to help with the Kerry campaign. "The President's foreign policy – I think is a disaster," Forbes says. "I think he talks a lot about terrorism, but he doesn't change the policy, which I think has increased hatred towards the US." Forbes, who was in Santa Fe Monday night, believes one way to raise awareness about issues pertinent to the election is to have workshops in which Kerry supporters write letters to newspaper editors. He's also "calling voters to see how they feel about John Kerry and to encourage them to vote."
Annie Chavez, statewide volunteer coordinator for Kerry's Travelers, a segment of the Kerry campaign devoted to sending people to swing states, says she expects people like Nation and Forbes to come from all over. "Right now, we have people coming in from Maryland, Maine and California, and we're expecting more," she says. "We've had people expressing an interest from Idaho and Iowa."
At the Democratic National Convention, the Kerry campaign urged supporters to travel to swing states. But Chavez said even people unfamiliar with the Kerry's Travelers program are taking the initiative and journeying to such states.
"We have a lot of people who are on their own calling us up and saying that they want to do it," she says. "We're seeing so much commitment to Senator Kerry's campaign. These are people who feel passionately about the campaign and are willing to make pretty personal and financial sacrifices." On Election Day, Kerry's travelers will step up their tactics by providing rides to the polls and baby-sitting for parents.
Via its Mighty Texas Strike Force, the Bush campaign will also send people to swing states such as New Mexico.
Rick Barraza and Adair Margo head the El Paso chapter of the Strike Force and plan to take volunteers to both Southern and Northern New Mexico. "Being in El Paso, we'd love for our city to go for Bush, but we know we can be used better in New Mexico, which is in swing," says Margo, a gallery owner.
According to Barraza, on Aug. 28 a group of 50-100 members of the Mighty Texas Strike Force will travel to Albuquerque. In the week before the election, Barraza says, "We'll relocate to Las Cruces." They'll use the Southern New Mexico city to have a rally for Hispanic Bush supporters, which Barraza says marks the first of such events in the country for this campaign.
While in Albuquerque, "we will be primarily making phone calls, knocking on doors, putting out yard signs," he says, "just really basic grassroots campaign tactics."