Just the other morning, I mailed off my absentee ballot. I'd carefully colored in all the ovals, signed it, smacked on a stamp and tossed that baby into the mailbox. Civic duty done? Maybe not.
Last month, for example, New Mexico's secretary of State had to admit that incorrect information had been mailed to more than 11,000 voters in five counties. That might not be considered too much of a slipup, until you consider that in the year 2000, in New Mexico, Al Gore beat George Bush by a mere 366 votes. In 2004, Bush defeated John Kerry by some 6,000 votes.
Of course, we all remember Florida and its hanging chads and a 5-to-4 Supreme Court decision to stop the recount. (To those still bemoaning the consequences of Ralph Nader's presence on the Florida ballot: A Washington Post investigation found that Gore would have taken Florida had the recount proceeded.)
Let's also recall what happened in Ohio four years ago. Tens of thousands of unexpected registered voters showed up to vote on Election Day, and many were forced to stand for hours, in lines stretching into the rain. Some were then turned away or made to vote on cobbled-together ballots that were never counted. In total, more than 350,000 votes -- most of them cast by Democrats -- got tossed. John Kerry lost the Buckeye State by about 135,000 votes.
The states have been working to address the problems, with mixed results. Last year, Ohio's new secretary of State investigated the state's voting machines and concluded that "All of the studied systems possess critical security failures that render their technical controls insufficient to guarantee a trustworthy election."
This should not inspire anyone with hope for what happens this Nov. 4.
The state of California and city of San Francisco recently sued one of the nation's biggest voting-machine companies, Election Systems & Software, after investigations revealed it had sold untested and uncertified voting machines. Last year, Colorado officials found that its ES&S machines, which had been used in the 2004 and 2006 elections, failed certification.
During the November 2006 election, nearly 67 million voters in 43 states cast their ballots on ES&S machines. Here in the West, ES&S machines are still used in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Washington and Wyoming.
Honest elections require far more than shelling out millions of dollars for new voting machines or outsourcing voter registration data; they require oversight. Some states now audit votes from a percentage of precincts, and in many states, close margins automatically trigger recounts. This Nov. 4, attorneys from both political parties as well as nonprofit groups will be watching closely and stand ready to file suits.
But it's clear that problems persist, and that's where we come in.
Right now, you can double-check your registration with the secretary of State's office in your state; in most states you can even do this online. And no, it's not too late to remedy a problem with your registration. It is important to check your registration, even if you have never moved or changed your party affiliation. During the New Mexico caucus, for example, a county clerk showed up to vote only to find that his name did not appear on the list of registered voters. The same thing happened to a district court judge.
When irregularities occur on Nov. 4 -- and, of course, some will occur, no matter what -- one thing each of us can do is to refuse to abide by the results until an investigation is completed. It's our job to hold elected officials accountable for fair elections and demand that newspapers watchdog the process, rather than simply report results. If necessary, we can even take to the streets or sit-in at state offices.
If this sounds extreme, consider what might have happened had we never accepted Florida's tainted results in 2000. Young men and women would not be dying in Iraq, Wall Street might not have run wild, the nation's coffers would not be bankrupted, and perhaps we'd even be tackling the issues of climate change, health care reform and renewable energy.
The time has come and gone for blind faith in the American electoral process. This Election Day, the stakes are too high to simply shrug off the problems and hope that things will work themselves out. If we want our vote to count, we have to be determined to make it count.
Laura Paskus is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is a journalist who recently moved from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Paonia, Colorado.