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At risk on Election Day

VOTING IS endangered in the United States. Too many voting machines didn't work in the 2000 presidential election. Too many people succumb to apathy on Election Day. And too many state officials accept shoddy and possibly underhanded election proceedings. In 2000, Florida became a national example of election flaws, from hanging chads to felon-purged voting lists that mistakenly took the vote away from people who were not felons. An investigation by the United States Commission on Civil Rights found other problems: poorly maintained voter registration lists, poorly trained poll workers who were not aware of voting rights, and little or no access for voters in wheelchairs.

On Election Day 2004, voters in every state should see a procedural revolution: cutting-edge voting technology and poll workers who have been steeped in the philosophy, law, and logistics of helping Americans vote.

Sadly, early signs are not promising.

Florida, again, has problems. In May, state officials distributed a list of felons and asked county officials to remove these people from the voting rolls. The list did not include Hispanic voters, who are considered to be friendly to President Bush. But it did include the names of black voters -- seen as unlikely to vote for Bush -- including the names of people whose right to vote had been restored.

The purge was scrapped. But members of Congress from Florida are asking for a federal investigation of complaints that elderly black voters were intimidated this year by Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents who were investigating voter fraud.

A report from the NAACP and People for the American Way points to efforts to turn away minority voters in Texas, Pennsylvania, and South Dakota.

Such events damage public confidence, making it seem that even in the 21st century, deliberate efforts will still be made to keep blacks and other minorities from voting.

The country needs credible, transparent, and verifiable election procedures that will restore public confidence. The Election Assistance Commission, set up by a 2002 federal law to be a clearinghouse for election officials, is doing some of this work. The commission has posted best practices for voting systems on its website. A report from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the California Institute of Technology offers additional sound advice, calling on the commission to play the role of ombudsman after the election and monitor the resolution of complaints.

People must also act, casting off apathy and refusing to accept substandard election practices, irregularities, or abuses. Presidents come and go. But to survive, democracies need a deep, free-flowing stream of voters.

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