The sad truth is our elections have always been a flawed process. Allegations and instances of voter fraud and voter intimidation are as old as the Constitution. Modern election day is a logistical nightmare involving more than 100 million voters. Because we have a federal system, states and most counties each have their own set of election laws and procedures. Most of us would like to believe that every vote is equal, but the system is very vulnerable to mistakes and abuse. For many years, no one noticed, but then again, most times the candidates in a presidential race were separated by millions of votes. Voting disputes were something that happened in races for city council. And then in 2000, the margin of error was larger than the margin between George Bush and Al Gore in a few crucial counties.
That election and the resulting legal battles did us all a favor, sort of. By exposing the many problems in election procedures, it forced the country to make critical reforms for the first time in decades. Unfortunately, the reforms have not gone far enough, in part because the parties have been fighting, worried the other side is trying to gain an unfair advantage, and also because there hasnít been enough time. Then too, since 9/11, many Americans havenít considered voting reform the nationís top priority.
Democrats and Republicans look at voting rights issues from different perspectives. To most Republicans, the problem is vote integrity preventing voter fraud from stealing elections. Republicans point to a long history of Democratic political machines in big cities using fake voter registrations and other deceptions. Favorite examples are dead people and springer spaniels finding their way onto voter registration sheets. Some of the allegations, though not all of them, are true. And since the Democrats have been conducting huge voter registration drives this year, the G.O.P. is suspicious.
Democrats worry more about vote access preventing people from intimidating voters into not casting a ballot. Democrats point to several episodes in recent decades when off-duty police officers or lawyers have been stationed at polling places in minority neighborhoods to challenge voters on whether they are properly registered. Postcards or phone recordings have told Democratic voters the wrong date for election day. Some of the allegations, but not all, are true.
Republicans counter that Democratic concerns are ridiculous because no lawful voter should be intimidated. But voters can be confused or frightened. New citizens, voters who donít speak English, elderly voters or people who donít understand all the legalities of their rights, can be intimidated by a lawyer or volunteer challenging their right to vote. Many older black voters were alive before Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965, and remember that there were often literacy tests and poll taxes barring their way to the ballot box.
Democrats say that election rules should encourage as many people to vote as possible. While thatís true, it ignores the fact that many voter rolls are not the streamlined, correct lists they should be. They have proved ripe for abuse.
The Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA) was supposed to solve all this and please both parties. Democrats won federal money to help states improve voting technologies and the Republicans won tighter guards against fraud. But states have received less than half the money authorized by the law, and some requirements have been waived until 2006.
Anticipating problems, both parties have been getting an early jump by filing lawsuits. If a particular voterís name doesnít show up in the rolls on Election Day, HAVA requires states to offer provisional ballots. The ballots will be counted if officials confirm the person is a registered voter afterward. But Republican election officials in several states are mandating that provisional ballots can only be counted if they are cast in the voterís correct precinct. Democrats are suing, claiming that discriminates against the poor and minority voters, who tend to change addresses more often. A judge in Ohio ruled in favor of the Democrats; one in Florida ruled for the Republicans. Itís likely that this issue or one of the many other disputes could end up in front of the Supreme Court.
Ironically, the parties may see a big upside to all this squabbling. Accusing the other side of trying to steal the election through fraud or intimidation will probably encourage turnout on both sides, as voters mobilize to ensure the other side doesnít ďstealĒ the election. But in this partisan atmosphere, when voters are swapping conspiracy theories daily about the other partyís dirty tricks, God help the country if this election is close. With all the potential for an election day breakdown, the eventual loser may simply refuse to accept the results.