Behind the scenes in last year's 11th House District — one of the nation's hottest congressional contests — a small army of mostly Democratic electionreform activists scrutinized almost every aspect of voting, from purges of voter-registration lists to the actual balloting to double-checks on the final tally.

Their conclusions, released Friday: Elections in the Bay Area are conducted with good intentions and often high marks but in general are messy, inconsistent affairs that could benefit from more openness.

"Without transparency, can you really determine if there is accuracy and security?" said Jack Dougherty, an Alameda lawyer and Democrat who helped organize 130 volunteers into an "election-protection task force" operating in San Joaquin, Alameda, Contra Costa and Santa Clara counties.

It appears to have been the most comprehensive campaign in years to safeguard the vote in a single California congressional district — and preparing for a legal battle in case of major irregularities and a tight outcome. That wasn't the case in wind engineer Jerry McNerney's ouster last year of U.S. Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Tracy.

Pombo lost by more than 10,000 votes, even ceding his conservative home territory in San Joaquin County. Washington Post political blogger Chris Cillizza on Saturday fingered the 11th as one of the nation's 10 most vulnerable Housedistricts for GOP recovery in 2008, partly because McNerney was aided by millions of dollars from environmental groups, "... (a)nd then there was the fact that Pombo was unwilling to recognize he was in a real race."

With news that Bush political guru Karl Rove and the National Republican Congressional Campaign have targeted McNerney and 10 other freshmen in conservative districts, Dougherty expects a larger repeat of the volunteer election-monitoring effort.

"Now that Karl Rove has entered the picture and said Jerry is No. 3 on their list, I think it has the same effect as if George Bush came to the district," Doughtery said. "We have more incentive to make sure the vote is protected in that district and to see that the recommendations we made are followed."

Those recommendations include using paper ballots over electronic touchscreens, training poll workers to let voters actually see the paper record of their electronic votes and verify them, posting precinct tallies at each polling place and allowing volunteers a closer look at the mandatory 1 percent hand recount performed as a check on the computerized vote tallies.

"You can't actually get close enough to see what's happening," Dougherty said. "We're not saying they're doing anything wrong, but you can't see to make sure there's nothing wrong."

Contact Ian Hoffman at ihoffman@angnewspapers.com or (510) 208-6458.