Another waiting game?

October 27, 2004

FINAL RESULTS in Afghanistan's Oct. 9 presidential election aren't expected until the end of this week, following a lengthy hand-count of ballots and an investigation of alleged voter fraud.

When Americans learn the official winner of their own impending presidential contest, though, the Afghans' three-week timetable may seem speedy by comparison.

With armies of lawyers, voting procedures that vary from state to state, and high-pitched partisan tensions adding further confusion and perhaps intimidation, Election Day 2004 seems destined for dysfunction. Only a decisive victory might spare us a dispute as protracted as the five-week siege of four years ago - or longer.

Fledgling democracies in Afghanistan and Iraq are getting an eyeful of how messy this government-by-the-people business can be.

President Bush and Sen. John Kerry can help make the best of a potentially dangerous situation, however. They should impress upon their supporters the imperative of remaining cool, calm and reasonable through whatever develops Election Day and beyond. One of them will have the responsibility to govern. Lingering resentment would only make that difficult job all the harder.

Both candidates should also vow to pursue whatever changes in the federal elections laws seem in order after this shakedown cruise. Despite a bipartisan effort at reform in the wake of the 2000 debacle, it's clear the system is still badly out of whack.

Some areas of concern:

Provisional voting: The 2002 reform law allows voters whose names don't appear on registration lists to cast provisional ballots, which will be counted if their eligibility is later confirmed. Some states, though, are refusing to count such ballots if voters show up in the wrong precinct. With voter registration at record-breaking levels, that policy is bound to disenfranchise many first-timers and violates the intent of the law.

Voting machines: About one-third of voters, including Marylanders, will be using electronic voting machines, which are in many respects preferable to older equipment, but most lack a paper back-up system to validate the accuracy of their counts. Such a back-up system should be required.

Overseas balloting: The Pentagon facilitates absentee balloting for citizens abroad, civilian as well as military. But since 2000, the Pentagon role has broadened beyond mail-handling to include e-mail and fax voting, raising questions about privacy and whether civilian voters get slighted.

Voter intimidation: Uncertainty and mistrust create a climate ripe for trouble. Elections officials must ensure that all potential voters are treated with respect and allowed to cast their ballots as quickly as possible.

Theodore B. Olson, the lawyer who successfully argued Mr. Bush's case before the Supreme Court after the 2000 election, says irrevocable forces are already headed toward a similar dispute unless there is a convincing victory one way or the other.

But reforms are in order in any case. It's long past time to impose uniform fairness in federal elections. Once that's done, we won't have to worry so much about a photo finish.

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