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‘Fraud at Polls’?

You remember, don’t you, what Citizen Kane did when he lost his big election? He ordered up blazing headlines in his newspapers declaring “Fraud at Polls!” Well, we’re concerned that the losing party in this election is going make similar charges, possibly throwing the country into worse turmoil than it experienced in 2000.

This could happen in any number of ways, some preventable and some not. One danger is that Republicans will charge that Old Chicago-style vote buying and ghost voting has occurred in key states, big cities and on Indian reservations.

The opposite can be expected from Democrats. Indeed, charges already have been made by People for the American Way and the NAACP that Republican challenges will “disenfranchise” legitimate voters. Despite the partisan fervor surrounding this election, we’d simply urge each party to scream “foul” only if and when actual offenses make it absolutely unavoidable. We’d also urge the press, local officials and good-government groups to monitor this election closely.

In the meantime, the most important thing that Congress could do to avoid a Citizen Kane election is to pass the bill proposed by Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) that requires a voter-verified paper record of each vote cast on electronic voting machines. For reasons that escape us, this provision was left out of the 2002 Help America Vote Act, Congress’ response to the 2000 Florida debacle. And for reasons that also escape us, House Republican leaders now are fighting Holt’s bill as though there were some nefarious partisan intent behind it.

Florida’s “hanging chad” fiasco was so highly publicized and so traumatic that jurisdictions around the country raced to “modernize,” assisted by HAVA money. According to Election Data Services Inc., which tracks voting systems, nearly 30 percent of voters this year will use electronic voting machines for which there is no paper backup, up from 12.5 percent in 2000. The other 70 percent will use punch cards (12 percent), levers (14 percent), optical scan cards (35 percent) or paper ballots.

In all but a few states, these touch-screen systems do not allow voters to check that their votes have been recorded properly and do not allow election officials to match a computer’s count with a paper backup.

This reality leaves a national election rife with unpleasant possibilities, ranging from actual misprogramming of computers to loud allegations of mischief or (at a minimum) nagging suspicions. To be sure, there’s some question whether Holt’s legislation could be implemented in time for the November elections if it were passed (after being introduced, way early, in May 2003). But many could try, by using the optical-scan systems they usually employ for absentee voting, for instance, or reverting to paper ballots.

We hope that 218 House Members will sign a discharge petition to get Holt’s bill — which boasts 151 co-sponsors, including seven Republicans — out of the House Administration Committee, where it’s bottled up.

Given GOP opposition, we fear this won’t happen. And if it doesn’t, there’s a good chance we’ll have another Florida-style fiasco — only this time with electronic machines that were supposed to solve the problem.

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