Republicans are worried that today's presidential election will be tainted by fraudulent votes; Democrats fear that minority voters will be disenfranchised. About the only thing the two sides agree on is that the election promises to be messy because of a record turnout and a huge number of newly registered voters - so messy, in fact, that it could call into question the validity of the outcome and produce another meltdown like Florida in 2000.
Actually, the contest will only be messy if it's close. If there's a landslide for either John McCain or Barack Obama, the problems in individual precincts - a few provisional ballots thrown in the trash, long lines that discourage voter participation, malfunctioning machines - will have little bearing on the result. Yet as trying as a contested election would be, such a crisis may be the only thing that will motivate Congress to fix the serious problems that remain in our federal balloting system.
The fiasco of 2000, the year "hanging chad" entered the lexicon and the outcome hinged on rulings by the Supreme Court, prompted major reforms under the Help America Vote Act of 2002. Unfortunately, partisan wrangling left the act full of ambiguities, with states and counties left to resolve them.
Potential trouble spots abound, including rules that vary from state to state on whether photo IDs are required and on verifying the identities of first-time voters. The act requires states to keep centralized databases of voter registration lists and to check names against other databases, such as Social Security or motor vehicle registries. Yet it doesn't say how precisely the information on these databases has to match. Four states, including Florida, require "perfect matches." Something as simple (and common) as a misplaced hyphen in a name could mean that a voter is handed a provisional ballot rather than a regular one.
Meanwhile, the act doesn't prohibit counties from disproportionately allocating poll resources, meaning that some polling places might not have enough machines or poll workers to meet demand - suspiciously, this tends to happen most often in poor and minority neighborhoods. It's still too easy to register nonexistent people as voters. And the failure to come up with a uniform national ballot design or voting system invites mistakes and questionable results.
The next Congress and administration should attend to these problems no matter which party is in control, though unfortunately there will be little motivation to do so if today's election runs smoothly. Not fixing the system only raises the risk of a breakdown in 2012.