Federal poll watchers were in 22 states during yesterday's elections, safeguarding against fraud or discrimination in election districts marked by tight races, large numbers of minority voters and faulty ballot machines.
Justice Department monitors and observers were assigned to Cuyahoga County, Ohio, which has been dogged by problems with computerized touch-screen voting machines. They were also in Bergen County, New Jersey, a must-win prize for both candidates in the state's Senate race.
They were also watching more than a dozen counties nationwide where polls are on American Indian reservations and in big cities dominated by black voters.
In all, the Justice Department sent an estimated 850 poll watchers to 69 cities and counties -- what officials on Monday called an unprecedented number and twice as many as during the 2002 congressional elections, the most recent non-presidential vote for Congress.
The government has dispatched poll watchers to ensure fair elections since the 1965 Voting Rights Act was enacted.
Assistant Attorney General Wan Kim, who heads the Justice Department's civil rights programs, told reporters last week that the election districts were selected in part because of close races there.
They include Fort Bend and Galveston counties in Texas, where Republican candidate Shelley Sekula-Gibbs is seeking to keep a Republican hold on the seat vacated by Republican Congressman Tom DeLay, who resigned in a corruption scandal.
Texas Democrats have accused Sekula-Gibbs of twice entering early voting locations -- which is prohibited by law -- to introduce herself to voters and workers.
That race also has been marked by allegations of poll workers offering unrequested assistance if voters need help with writing in a candidate or need help writing in Sekula-Gibbs, whose supporters would have to write in her name because DeLay's still appears in the Republican slot on the ballot.
Poll watchers were in several major cities -- including Boston, Chicago, Denver, New Orleans, San Francisco and parts of New York City -- where black and other minority voters traditionally have claimed they were denied access to the ballot box.
The federal watchdogs were in some small cities, too, like Springfield, Massachusetts, where the Justice Department forced officials to hire bilingual poll workers to help Spanish-speaking residents at the polls.
Eight counties in South Dakota were also visited by the monitors.