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Vote As You Bank

Every day, tens of millions of people use ATMs in utter confidence that their bank transactions will be accurately recorded. And as Bank of America brags in its television ads, it processes 10 billion checks annually with an error rate close to zero. This year, and the sooner the better, Congress ought to make America’s voting system work like that.

Commendably, House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio) has promised early hearings to assess the 2004 election and to review the Help America Vote Act, which was intended to prevent a repeat of the 2000 Florida debacle. As it turned out, Florida 2000 wasn’t repeated, but Ohio 2004 — to take just the worst example — veered perilously close.

Some Ohio voters stood in line for seven hours in cold rain to cast ballots. Thousands gave up, even though they were offered soup and umbrellas. Of the state’s 88 counties, 68 relied on antiquated punch-card voting machines that became so discredited by Florida’s experience. And in populous Franklin and Cuyahoga counties, where both electronic and punch-card machines were used, miscalculations of turnout patterns caused election officials to allocate too few machines to heavily minority (and Democratic) Columbus and Cleveland and disproportionately more to suburban areas. As a result, inner-city lines were longer and so were so-called “lost votes” — ballots on which no vote for president was recorded.

Then, of course, there was Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell’s decision, upheld by the courts as consistent with state law, that voters whose registration was challenged could cast provisional ballots only in their home precincts. Provisional voting was one of the landmark creations of HAVA, but its implementation varied from state to state, even county to county.

An array of liberal groups, Web loggers and Members of Congress led by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) are convinced that the Ohio irregularities amount to systematic fraud that may have cost Democratic nominee John Kerry (Mass.) the presidency. The overwhelming consensus of election watchers, including all top Democratic officials, is that there is no way such discrepancies could have reversed Bush’s six-figure margin in the state.

Assuming they’re right, though, the nation has simply dodged a bullet. If Bush’s Ohio margin had been, say, 10,000, the nation would still be in litigation and a deep political crisis. So it behooves Congress and election officials to repeat their verbal resolve of 2000 — “Never again” — and mean it this time. It took two years to pass HAVA, and it was underfunded. As a result, many states used old equipment and had too few trained poll workers.

If Congress and the states truly regard voting as the bedrock of democracy, then they need to see to it that voting operates as dependably as possible. Right now, it’s a long, long way from meeting the benchmark of the banking system. That gap needs to be closed.

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