The Republicans are out to steal the 2004 election -- before, during, and after Election Day. Before Election Day, they are employing such dirty tricks as improper purges of voter rolls, use of dummy registration groups that tear up Democratic registrations, and the suppression of Democratic efforts to sign up voters, especially blacks and students.
On Election Day, Republicans will attempt to intimidate minority voters by having poll watchers threaten criminal prosecution if something is technically amiss with their ID, and they will again use technical mishaps to partisan advantage.
But the most serious assault on democracy itself is likely to come after Election Day.
Here is a flat prediction: If neither candidate wins decisively, the Bush campaign will contrive enough court challenges in enough states so that we won't know the winner election night.
The right stumbled on a gambit in 2000, which could become standard operating procedure in close elections: If the election ends up in the courts, all courts eventually lead to the Supreme Court, which, as we learned, can overrule state courts -- and pick the president.
This year is even more ripe for abuse, because the 2002 Help America Vote Act, a "reform" written substantially to Republican specifications, toughened ID requirements. It also gave voters a right to cast "provisional" ballots if their names are missing from the rolls. Good impulse, but someone, ultimately a court, must decide whether they should have been permitted to vote, and that's almost impossible to resolve on Election Day.
In addition, states are experimenting with a variety of new voting systems, to avoid a repeat of the technical glitches that made it easy for Republicans to steal Florida in 2000. And experiment is the right word; much of this technology isn't ready for prime time.
In our voting systems, we now have a witches' brew of 19th-century local amateurism married to 21st-century technology that is not yet reliable. The technical mess functions as an enabler of the assault on voting.
There was a time when Democrats were the party that occasionally stole elections. Lyndon Johnson very likely stole his 1948 victory in the Texas Democratic primary, which launched his Senate career. President Kennedy actually joked about the notorious vote rigging in Chicago, which quite possibly tipped Illinois to him in 1960. (He would have won the Electoral College very narrowly without Illinois.)
It was Richard Nixon, that scoundrel's scoundrel, who resisted the temptation to mount a court challenge to the Illinois result because he felt the country couldn't take it. Imagine longing for the days when we had Republican leadership as principled as Nixon's.
But the days of urban Democratic machines that voted dead people are long gone. The press has reported isolated abuses, such as a few Florida snowbirds trying to register in more than one state. But any fair comparison of election abuses this year will reveal that one party is expending energy to register as many supporters as possible and assure that that their votes will be counted, while the other one is registering its supporters but also systematically trying to keep the opposition's votes from being cast. There is simply no comparable Democratic program of ballot suppression.
Maybe we should invite election observers from Afghanistan and Iraq.
We may not know the winner until the Electoral College meets in December, and perhaps not even then if contested elections are still tied up in court. It's not even clear whether the ultimate arbiter would be the Supreme Court or the House of Representatives.
If the courts took away the people's right to choose the president, and George Bush in effect stole two elections in a row, this would surely produce a constitutional crisis and a crisis of legitimacy.
But what if they gave a constitutional crisis and nobody came? The most ominous outcome of all would be public passivity, echoing 2000. That would confirm that the theft of our democracy was real.
Call me partisan, but the best insurance against this horrific outcome would be a Kerry win big enough so that even Karl Rove would not dare to mount this maneuver. A razor-thin race virtually invites it. And if Bush wins handily, our democracy will have other problems.
© 2004 Boston Globe