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September 20, 2017

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Can Americans trust vote results?

CHAUTAUQUA, New York -- American commentators proclaim this year's presidential election to be the most exciting in their lifetimes. You see it in the newspapers, on TV, and most of all on the Internet, which has become the dominant media outlet for everything from salacious humor and vicious rumor to serious analysis.

Serious observers are asking whether Americans can trust their election results. Voters are asking too, and it is chilling to contemplate that close electoral contests could become bruising court battles this autumn. There is good reason for concern. People do not trust electronic voting machines.

Lawsuits over voting results rose from 96 after the 2000 elections to more than 350 after the 2004 contests. How many there will be after U.S. elections in November is anybody's guess, but analysts have invented new terminology; "the margin of victory to avoid litigation." In state after state, vote tallies could be challenged as they were in Taiwan's 2004 presidential election. Across the U.S., even those election commissioners who don't care who wins pray for landslide margins so the results won't be challenged. To add another element of doubt in the fairness of American elections, many of the people charged with running them are very partisan politicians.

Suspicion about accuracy and fairness in U.S. elections has been rampant in the new century. In 2000, the Florida voting for president was marred by numerous irregularities; confusing ballots, hanging chads, inaccurate voter registration rolls, alleged intimidation of black voters and more. The outcome in that one state determined whether Al Gore or George Bush would become president. Some say the presidency ultimately was determined by a single vote, in the 5-4 Supreme Court ruling that halted litigation over recounts. That is not the way we should be choosing presidents of the United States.

The 2004 election was not as traumatic as in 2000, but it could have been. The presidential race was decided again by the outcome in a single state; this time it was Ohio. Again there were numerous irregularities. In some black areas around the major cities, there were so few operating voting machines that voters waited all day and still could not vote. Other polling stations closed early. Machines malfunctioned. Among the discrepancies in other states, a precinct in the Philadelphia area reported many more votes cast than voters recorded in the census. Elsewhere, memory cards containing 15 percent of the vote were not uploaded in a local election, and discovery of the discrepancy was a matter of luck. As for the crucial contest in Ohio, Senator Kerry, who lost to President Bush, was urged by advisers to challenge the results in court. He declined to do so, no doubt in part because the margin of victory, somewhat more than 100,000 votes, was greater than the discrepancies which could have been proven.

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