THE NUMBER of ways in which next week's election can go wrong are dizzying to contemplate. Millions of new voters have registered - many of them students or first-time voters - and it's not at all clear that the nation's election apparatus is ready for them. Every day brings a new allegation of voter purges, confusing ballots, or mechanical failures in the states with early voting. To say nothing of long lines and not enough machines and poll workers.
The indispensable Brennan Center for Justice, the nonpartisan watchdog group that has brought suit to protect voters' rights, has co-produced a 50-state report card. Woefully, several places with inadequate preparations or suspect policies are battleground states - Colorado, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and yes, Florida. Especially galling is that 15 states have no method to verify all electronic votes with paper records.
After the election debacle of 2000, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, which was intended to fund ways to correct barriers to voting. But Brennan Center executive director Michael Waldman thinks that registration challenges, voter intimidation, and other practices are actually getting worse. "The level of attempted disenfranchisement in this election is substantially greater than we've ever seen in previous recent federal elections," Waldman said at a press conference earlier this month.
A separate report by Common Cause found voter suppression tactics in 10 key states, the most frequent being aggressive use of "voter match" requirements that put thousands of voters at risk if, for example, a middle initial on a voter registration form doesn't exactly match the name on a driver's license. Republicans in Ohio demanded a list of 200,000 voters' names with such minor mismatches so that they could be challenged at the polls. Fortunately the US Supreme Court ruled that the Ohio secretary of state did not have to supply the names, and the US Justice Department has declined to wade into the controversy, despite a personal request for a review from President Bush.
There have been other bright spots: In Indiana, a court ruled that foreclosure or eviction is no basis for challenging a voter, and other states have followed suit. Florida's Republican governor, Charles Crist, extended the hours for early voting when long lines developed, and early voting itself, now allowed in 32 states, should release some of the pressure on Election Day.
But the millions of newly engaged voters who will appear on Tuesday need to believe that their votes count - and will be counted. Putting an end to the suppression of legitimate voters must be a priority for both parties, starting Nov. 5.