- Three days before America's most important election in
decades, the country is praying that chaos will not ensue this time, and
the world's so-called beacon of democracy will not have to ask the Supreme
Court again to decide who will be President.
- Things have already started to go wrong. In Florida,
60,000 absentee ballots in a predominantly Democratic county have vanished
without trace, and are only partly being replaced after a public outcry.
- In Ohio, the Republican Party is trying to have 35,000
new voters thrown off the rolls on the mere suspicion their paperwork is
not ship-shape. In Nevada and Oregon, police have pulled the voter registration
forms of hundreds of declared Democrats out of rubbish bins, where they
were allegedly thrown by employees of a Republican consulting firm posing
as a non-partisan voting rights organisation.
- In several states, the Republican Party intends to post
thousands of vote "challengers" in polling stations, a technique
historically associated with efforts to suppress the black vote in the
segregationist Deep South. In Michigan, which has a huge urban black population,
a Republican state senator has said: "If we do not suppress the Detroit
vote, we're going to have a tough time in this election."
- Welcome to the presidential race of 2004, where the stakes
are so high and the fighting so fierce the system is starting to break
down before a single vote has been counted. Unlike last time, when a nail-bitingly
close race in Florida led to a 36-day legal battle, the lawyers are out
in force well ahead of election day and the lawsuits are already flying
- 11 in Florida alone.
- With them has come a torrent of accusations of vote fraud,
voter suppression and abuse of power by election officials. Problems seem
inevitable, not only because of the furious battles waged over the management
of absentee ballots, provisional ballots, voter rolls and other bureaucratic
arcana, but also because the new generation of electronic voting machines
replacing the reviled old punchcards have been shown to be unreliable,
unverifiable and alarmingly prone to malicious intervention.
- What we do not yet know and cannot know until Tuesday
night is whether the dysfunctions of the world's most powerful democracy
will interfere with the outcome of the presidential contest. At first blush,
it seems most improbable that the election could turn, once again, on a
few hundred votes in a crucial swing state.
- On the other hand, the polls indicate a race every bit
as close as Bush versus Gore. And it is important to remember that Florida
was far from the only problem last time.
- In four states - Florida, New Hampshire, New Mexico and
Oregon - the number of disqualified ballots exceeded the margin of victory,
making them ripe for recount battles. The reason we heard only about Florida
was the others did not control enough electoral votes to sway the outcome.
- Overall, two million votes went uncounted in 2000 because
of spoiled, unmarked or uncounted ballots. When you include the number
turned away from the polls for reasons of bureaucratic incompetence or
intimidation, the number of voters barred from exercising their franchise
mushrooms to between four and six million.
- Could it be as bad this time? In some ways, it could
be worse, especially if the race is tight and the margins of victory in
two or more swing states are below 0.5 per cent. With thousands of lawyers
fanned out across the country, there is every prospect that this election
will, like the last one, be settled in court.
- Some things have improved since 2000. Every state is
now obliged to organise provisional balloting in case of questions about
a voter's eligibility on polling day. Early voting has expanded enormously,
relieving the pressure on election day. Perhaps most importantly, people
are more aware of the problems and are monitoring the process with vigilance.
- But any trust between the parties has been poisoned.
The Republicans accuse the Democrats of trying to fatten the voter rolls
with non-citizens, felons, dead people, fictional characters and cats;
Democrats accuse Republicans of trying to suppress legal votes and using
racist tactics to keep black voters away.
- But, one Associated Press poll found most voters assume
voting will conclude with a legal battle. Two-thirds of Democrats and 56
per cent of Republicans expect to wake on Wednesday to find the race unresolved.
- VOTER REGISTRATION
- Get-out-the-vote drives by both camps will attract hundreds
of thousands of new voters. But will their names be on the rolls in time?
Meanwhile, the Republicans claim that many voters have been fraudulently
or incorrectly registered and are challenging 35,000 new registrations
in Ohio alone. In Oregon and Nevada, a Republican-linked firm has been
accused of throwing away thousands of new Democrat registrations.
- In 2000, it was alleged that police officers were used
at polling stations to scare away voters from Democrat-leaning minority
groups. This time, both parties will dispatch crowds of volunteers to polling
stations, in theory to monitor the process. But each side says the other
will use them to scare away rival voters. "If no signs of intimidation
have emerged yet, launch a pre-emptive strike," advises one Democrat
- TOUCH-SCREEN VOTING
- After the "hanging chads" nightmare in 2000,
many states have invested in electronic voting machines. But these may
introduce new problems. None has been tested in a presidential election.
In the event of recounts, few produce a paper record of votes, which will
make verification difficult. Other risks include malfunctioningmachines
or computer servers, and the possibility that outsiders could hack into
- ABSENTEE BALLOTS
- Record numbers of absentee ballots are being returned
from overseas. Counting them could attract a landslide of challenges. But
what happens in states where Ralph Nader has only recently been disqualified
although thousands have already voted for him? In Florida,it was alleged
this week that 60,000 Broward Countyballots were never delivered. Officials
are scrambling to send them out again. Will they arrive in time? Will some
people get two?
- PROVISIONAL BALLOTS
- A new federal law encourages states to issue provisional
voting status to people whose status as bona fide voters is for some reason
in dispute (say, if their names are not on the rolls) on election day.
But some details have not been settled. For instance, if a provisional
ballot is cast at the wrong precinct, should it count or not? Lawsuits
are already flying in both directions in several states over this particular
- PURGE LISTS
- Civil rights groups say some states are using "purge"
lists (which bar anyone with a criminal record from voting) that will also
prevent legitimate voters from casting ballots. About five million Americans
have had their voting rights stripped in this way. Florida tried to revamp
its purge list after flaws were revealed in 2000, but gave up. More than
2,000 Floridians are now challenging determinations that they cannot vote.
- © 2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd http://news.independent.co.uk/world/americas/story.jsp?story=577504