With hundreds of reporters and pundits on hand at last week's Democratic National Convention in Boston, no aspect of U.S. politics seemed too trivial or irrelevant to be mulled over and speculated about endlessly on national television.
So, for instance, two days before John Kerry was to give his acceptance speech, there was speculation on CNN about whether Kerry would kiss his wife after the speech, and if so, would he show the same gusto Al Gore had shown in kissing his wife after accepting the Democratic nomination in 2000. A couple of journalists weighed in on the matter.
But with that sort of item filling up airtime, there seemed to be practically no time to devote to what many might consider a far more important topic — a topic which came up almost by accident, was briefly discussed and then simply abandoned.
On the floor of the Democratic convention, CNN's Wolf Blitzer asked Florida Senator Bob Graham if the state had solved the problem of hanging chads and punch-card ballots, which had caused such havoc in the last presidential election.
Graham noted that those problems had been solved, but pointed to another problem: about half of Florida voters will use electronic voting machines in November, even though "(We) do not have any verifiable backup in case one of those machines malfunctions or there's a challenge to the accuracy of the machines."
Blitzer seemed shocked by this. "Well, how is that possible in this day and age you don't have a backup?"
Graham's answer was stunning: "Because I'll say (Florida) Governor (Jeb) Bush and his administration have stonewalled the efforts to get a paper trail behind these electronic machines."
Here, then, was an issue with some real meat on it, an issue that throws into question the very viability of the U.S. democratic process.
Graham's charge is serious — that the governor of Florida, who also, of course, happens to be the brother of the president, is using his power to block efforts to protect the integrity of the voting system in his state, which is expected to be crucial in determining the outcome of the upcoming presidential election.
Concerns about the adequacy of electronic voting machines have been percolating in the background for some time. Finally, the issue was getting some serious airtime.
But no sooner had it surfaced than it disappeared.
The media's lack of sustained interest in this story is striking, given what happened four years ago, when disputes over the Florida vote led to the biggest electoral crisis in U.S. history. After 36 days of recounting and court interventions, the choice of George W. Bush as president was effectively made by the U.S. Supreme Court — an unelected body, the majority of whose members were appointed by an administration in which Bush's father was either president or vice-president.
That election was also marred by charges of disenfranchisement, particularly among black voters. With that in mind, 11 Democrats in Congress recently called for U.N. observers to monitor the 2004 election — a call rejected by outraged Republicans.
Of course, no country likes to admit that its elections need U.N. supervision. But the allegations of black disenfranchisement are so serious and the election so potentially close that the involvement of a neutral body, unconnected to the Bush family, might be useful.
If the Florida voting is as close as expected, recounts will be inevitable — but impossible.
Concerns about the lack of a paper trail have prompted some states to ban the machines in the November election. But Jeb Bush has brushed aside such concerns, refusing to even allow independent audits of the machines in Florida.
Then there's the worrying fact that Walden O'Dell, CEO of Diebold Inc., which owns a major manufacturer of electronic voting machines, is a prominent Republican fundraiser. The Diebold voting machine software is a trade secret, not open to public scrutiny.
Meanwhile, back at the Democratic convention, there were some stirring speeches last week. To Canadian ears, the words of Al Gore, Ted Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Rev. Al Sharpton were a potent reminder that there's a vision of America we haven't heard much about in the past four years.
Stirring, but possibly irrelevant. It won't matter how many voters are moved by a more egalitarian, peaceful vision of America if their votes disappear, never to be seen again, into the maw of some electronic black box.
Of course, some might argue that the lack of a back-up paper trail shouldn't matter. After all, there's another back-up that can always be called upon in a pinch: the Supreme Court.
Copyright Toronto Star Newspapers Limited.