Barack Beware... They're Out to Get You

In five weeks, I hope to look back on this column with a wry chuckle at my paranoia. If the system works, Barack Obama will take the White House. The two issues John McCain is most closely associated with - invading Iraq, and deregulating the economy - have produced history-snatching catastrophes in the eyes of 80 per cent of Americans. In the first debate, McCain revealed he had nothing to say except more of the same: aggression abroad, market fundamentalist ideology at home. So why am I worried?

Obama is only a few jittery points ahead in the polls, and he has yet to face an October Surprise. This is an old term in US politics, invented when, on the eve of the 1968 election, Lyndon Johnson announced a halt to the bombing of Vietnam. It was a desperate attempt to push the Democratic nominee, Hubert Humphrey, over the finish line - and it failed. But October Surprises need not come from the opposing party. They can come from anywhere.

The first and worst would be the reappearance of Osama Bin Laden. Just five days before the 2004 election, he released a video effectively endorsing John Kerry. He told Americans to imagine corpses crying: "Call to task those who have caused our death!" and said they should "return to what is right," rather than reward "the liar in the White House".

Why would he do this? Bin Laden's long-term strategy is to "provoke and bait". He explains to his supporters: "We conducted a war of attrition against Russia with jihad fighters for 10 years until they went bankrupt. We are continuing in the same policy - to make America bleed profusely to the point of bankruptcy." To achieve this, "all we have to do is send two mujahideen [to a remote, irrelevant area] and raise a piece of cloth on which is written 'al-Qa'ida' in order to make the [US] generals race there, to cause America to suffer human, economic, and political losses."

This is his goal, in his own words - to bleed America through irrational, wildly expensive wars that will tilt thousands more fanatical young men from Islamism to full-blown jihadism. So who would you want in the White House? The guy who will wean the US off Middle Eastern oil and the wars and tyrannies it supports to get it - or his opponent? Bin Laden is a monster, but he is not an imbecile. He knows that his endorsement is a kiss of death. The man he publicly praises is the man he wants to lose. Kerry failed to expose Bin Laden's trick; Obama must do it as soon as the tape hits the air.

Beyond this, there could be a 4 November surprise: the Republicans may try to steal the election. Again. They loudly claim to be concerned about voter fraud, even though a New York University study recently found that it "is more likely an individual will be struck by lightning than that he will impersonate another voter at the polls". But in the name of this paltry risk, they are effectively stripping millions of people - overwhelmingly black and Democrats - of their vote.

Their first vote-stripping tactic is to require elaborate voter identification that black people disproportionately lack. For example, in Indiana - a crucial swing state - Republicans have passed a law requiring voters to bring an official government document bearing their photograph to the polling station. But a study by the University of Wisconsin found that 53 per cent of black adults didn't have a passport or driving licence, compared to 15 per cent of white people. So they can't vote unless they travel for hours (often without a car) to a sparse government registry and queue for half a day to get the correct documentation. The former political director of the Texas Republican Party, Royal Masset, explains: "Requiring photo IDs could cause enough of a drop-off in legitimate Democratic voting to add 3 per cent to the Republican vote." Their second tactic is to strip the electoral rolls of black names. In almost all US states, criminals lose their vote for life. This is shocking in itself - it disenfranchises a quarter of all black men in Kentucky, for one. But many states have a sloppy process where they simply scrub anyone with the same name as a criminal off the list. So if there is a criminal called "Chris Wayne" in a county, every black man called "Chris Wayne" loses their vote. That's a lot of Democrats. In Florida in 2000, black voters made up 13 per cent of the electorate yet they were 26 per cent of the people wrongly disenfranchised.

When a judge ordered the release of the paperwork, he found out why. The team under Florida governor, Jeb Bush, had ordered that black criminal names had to go - but Hispanic names were not to be touched. Black Floridians overwhelmingly vote Democrat, while Hispanics lean towards the Republicans. The Bush team said this was "absolutely unintentional" and "a coincidence".

This time, the Republicans have added another group to strip from the rolls. James Carabelli, a Republican Party chairman in Michigan, says: "We have a list of foreclosed homes and will make sure people aren't voting from those addresses." These voters are supposed to register from their new addresses - but many are out of time, or too stressed to do it. So the Republicans have launched a national "voter challenge campaign" against honest people who have lost their homes. They know that 60 per cent of sub-prime mortgages went to black voters, and virtually everyone who lost their home is angry with the Republicans.

If these acts of electoral sabotage go ahead on November 4 and tilt the election to McCain, Obama needs to learn from Al Gore's mistake. As the recent HBO film Recount shows, Gore was consensual and statesmanlike - in the middle of a knife fight. He sent urbane professors to make his case, while the Republicans drummed up mobs that physically stopped the vote-counts in Palm Beach County while the clock ticked. If the need comes, Obama needs to call fraud by its real name - and fight.

I hope I'm being too cynical. I hope I'm wrong. But it would be wise to fasten your seatbelts: it's going to be a bumpy month.

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