Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Americans will calmly cast their vote for president next Tuesday, as they have done for more than two centuries, despite news stories that want us to believe we are a country at war with itself.

As the presidential contest races toward its conclusion, the news coverage is sounding, well, hysterical. “Some fear Ohio will be Florida of 2004,” blares a front page headline in The Washington Post. This has turned into “a confused — and potentially chaotic — presidential election,” The Post says.

Or read the cover of this week’s Time magazine where in purple, angry, over-the-top rhetoric screams that this isn’t just another election but an “uncivil war,” in which Americans are in combat against one another in a nation torn asunder by division and hatred and God-knows-what-else. Who can put the country back together again? the magazine asks. Can it ever be unified? Have we ceased to be the United States of America?

I mean, please. Time’s writers and editors need to take a Valium or at least a deep breath. Better yet, drive out into the country and drop by the local Kiwanis or Rotary club luncheon in Any-Town, USA, where you will find people of varying political views who are not at each other’s throats, who live along side people with conflicting beliefs in towns that will go to the polls and vote and then go about their daily lives.

Yes, in elections we have differences of opinion and we argue them as strongly and as fiercely as we can. It’s called politics and campaigning, and it is the stuff of democracy. Wherever you have the freedom to voice your views, you will find people who will say and do some pretty stupid things, but things usually return to normal after our elections. There is no reason to believe that this won’t be the case this time as well.

Will there be voter fraud? Undoubtedly. It has been a tradition in elections since votes were cast. Who can forget all those dubious Democratic votes that mysteriously appeared in Cook County that tipped Illinois into John F. Kennedy’s column in 1960 (or the votes that popped up out of nowhere in Texas) that put him over the top. It continues today. Al Gore barely carried New Mexico by 300-plus votes in 2000 after ballots vanished in selected locations.

There seem to be more instances of skullduggery this time in the wake of a huge increase in voter registration. Ohio’s registration rolls are said to have 120,000 duplicate names, including a murder victim and a couple of suspected terrorists.

In Ohio’s Franklin County, there are more registered voters than there are voter-eligible residents, according to the U.S. census figures. There are 20 counties in Colorado that similarly appear to have more voters than people qualified to vote. Thousands of Florida voters are also registered to vote in another state.

Our voting system is not perfect, something we should remember when we hear about problems in Iraq’s election next year. But we have election laws and tighter procedures, a million poll watchers, thousands of lawyers and, as the ultimate backup, state and local officials, courts and judges that will settle complaints and adjudicate petitions and hear cases.

But the potential for political skullduggery is not just in our voting system but in the news media’s habit of trying to influence an election with some dubious 11th-hour story. We saw that this week when CBS’ “60 Minutes” and the New York Times colluded to produce a story about 380 tons of missing explosives from an Iraqi munitions facility south of Baghdad.

John Kerry swallowed the story whole, saying it was another example of the administration’s incompetence in Iraq. But the unconfirmed story fell apart Monday night after NBC News reported that these explosives were already missing, according to one of their reporters who was embedded with troops from the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, who searched the site on April 10, 2003.

Despite Mr. Kerry’s self-serving, uninformed charges, Pentagon officials say that troops thoroughly combed through 32 bunkers and 87 buildings but found no explosives at the site. One explanation: Saddam Hussein loyalists removed the materials before U.S. forces arrived.

Keep in mind the sources of this report: CBS, the network that ran with bogus documents about President Bush’s National Guard service before admitting they were fake, and the New York Times whose top editors were forced to resign when a star reporter admitted he made up the stories that they splashed across their front page.

Elections can be a messy, nasty business, yet we have survived all of them, including the crooks and charlatans we sometimes put into office. With all of its flaws and human imperfections, our wide open democratic system of self-government has served us pretty well. We are still the United States of America.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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