Let's begin with the obvious: The United States of America, the most powerful country on earth, has a second-rate, piecemeal, jury-rigged (if not outright rigged) system of administering elections that undercuts faith in the integrity of electoral results on the part of a wide--and growing--swath of the electorate. And, tragically, that is not going to change any time soon.

I'm not talking about the Washington governor's race. Ohio has become the new Florida, at least for the Democratic left. In the Buckeye State, the AP reported on Monday, December 13, "activists say there were disparities in vote totals for Democrats, too few voting machines in Democrat-leaning precincts, organized campaigns directing voters to the wrong polling place, and confusion over the counting of provisional ballots by voters whose names did not appear in the books at polling places."

This week the state will begin a recount of the presidential vote, paid for by the Greens and Libertarians. On Monday, Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan held a hearing in Columbus to investigate electoral "irregularities." Jesse Jackson has suggested that Democrats formally object to Ohio's Electoral College delegation. The Kerry campaign has offered tentative (and, sigh, nuanced) support for those pressing for a closer look at what happened there.

Good for them. Obviously, none of it is going to change a goddamn thing.

I thought I'd written my last PrezMat column, but (as is typical) I was wrong. Since Election Day, I have been inundated with calls and e-mails from activist types complaining to me about the how the presidential election had been stolen. Seattle, it turns out, is a hotbed of electoral fraud suspicion, in part because so many liberally inclined people in this town felt cheated by what happened in 2000, and in part because black-box voting maven Bev Harris hails from the area. Howard Martin's seattlefordean.com website has been assiduously linking to relevant press reports about developments in Ohio and elsewhere. Okay, I'm writing about it.

My initial thought: The election result is not the problem. Bush won. In Ohio, his official margin was 118,775 votes. The recount is unlikely to change that substantially. My second thought: Even the people who run elections in Ohio are not the problem, except insofar as they epitomize a much broader problem. The system, administered by partisans, is the problem.

It is certainly not paranoid to wonder whether the election was subverted. In 2000, Secretary of State Katherine Harris (who also doubled as co-chair of Bush's state campaign), purged thousands of former felons, likely Democratic voters, from the rolls, even though her list was rife with inaccuracies and many on it were eligible voters. Harris' replacement (Harris was rewarded for her partisan star turn with a seat in Congress) attempted the same thing, but was exposed by a belatedly vigilant press.

Similarly this year, there were attempts to game the system in Ohio. Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, a Republican who covets the governor's mansion, proved his partisan colors when he tried to reject thousands of new voter registrations because the forms were printed on the wrong paper stock (he backed down in the face of a public outcry). The Columbus Dispatch recently reported that some voting machines destined for inner-city Columbus precincts never made it to the polling places, which may help explain why thousands of people in Democratic areas across Ohio were forced to wait hours to cast ballots. Many may well have given up before voting.

What all this adds up to is (unfortunately) not a stolen Kerry win, but a wretched elections system in desperate need of fundamental reform. In Washington State we've been pretty lucky to have had clean elections. Secretary of State Sam Reed is unusual among politicians in that he seems more dedicated to fading norms of public integrity than he is to his political party. He's not Blackwell. King County Elections Head Dean Logan has done an admirable job in the gubernatorial recount under trying circumstances, resisting efforts from both sides to manipulate the ballot-counting process.

But a system that remains completely dependent on the probity of partisan politicians, as our system does, is one that all but invites abuse. Hence Florida 2000 and Ohio 2004. Hence the huge, and growing, number of people who have lost faith in the fundamental fairness of our electoral system. But election reform is complicated. It's unsexy. Not enough people can be bothered to educate themselves about what has gone wrong. That is tragic, I suppose, but it's also business as usual.

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