By Martin Wolk
msnbc.com
updated 11/3/2004 8:08:49 PM ET 2004-11-04T01:08:49

Election officials, they say, pray for a landslide because it is only in the photo finishes — like the 2000 presidential race — that the flaws in their system are exposed.

President Bush's re-election Tuesday was hardly a runaway victory, but it was clear and decisive enough to smooth out the rough spots and bolster faith in the American version of democracy.

Still, there were plenty of unpleasant developments on Election Day, including wait times of more than five hours at some polling places, confusion over where to vote and lingering questions about how to handle the provisional ballots that briefly threatened to become this year’s hanging chads.

“I think it will be dangerous if we interpret this election as one that went off smoothly just because there weren’t any fistfights at the polling place,” said Chellie Pingree, president of Common Cause, a non-partisan reform group. “I think if you talked to a voter who spent three hours in line, they would say it wasn’t a smooth election. In many ways it wasn’t any different from the 2000 election — it just wasn’t within 500 votes. So we aren’t back in there trying to do a recount.”

DeForest Soaries, chairman of the new federal Election Assistance Commission, said the margin of victory helped restore confidence in a system that was badly shaken by the 2000 Florida debacle.

More work to be done
“We believe things went well enough to give us permission to go forward but not so well so that we can now hang our hats and say everything is fine,” he said.

Soaries, whose agency was established by Congress in the aftermath of the 2000 election, said he was in Miami Tuesday and was startled to see election officials overwhelmed trying to process 50,000 absentee ballots with just three machines.

“I thought, if Florida can’t decide on an outcome we’ll be here for a month,” he said. “The margin helped.”

In general, he said, the election process went “very well,” but he cautioned that any technological glitches might not be immediately apparent.

“I’m thrilled the electronic machines did not create a stir, but to be completely honest I think it’s my job to say we don’t know what we don’t know,” Soaries said. He said the commission intends to file a report with Congress in January assessing the election and the impact of the 2002 Help America Vote Act.

Racial perceptions differ
Exit polls indicated that 88 percent of voters were confident their votes would be counted accurately, but blacks were twice as likely as whites to lack confidence in the system.

Greg Moore, executive director of the NAACP National Voter Fund, said minority voters were justified in their skepticism, especially when Sen. John Kerry conceded before a single provisional ballot from Ohio had been counted.

“It’s another affront to our democracy when we don’t have all the votes counted before a winner is declared,” he said.

Moore also was among many activists who complained about the long lines. They argued that election officials easily could have foreseen the record turnout of nearly 120 million voters, or about 60 percent of voting-age Americans.

“There are a lot of reforms that people used to laugh at, but in light of what happened yesterday, when more people participate and more people register, it’s clear we have to do more to prepare for that,” he said.

In Florida, nearly 1.8 million people — 20 percent of the state’s voters — took advantage of a 15-day early voting period, alleviating Election Day crowds but causing unanticipated consequences. Some voters turned up at early-voting locations Tuesday only to discover they had to go to a separate polling place for Election Day.

Still, the experiment in Florida and other states is likely to be broadened in future elections.

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One issue that caused a buzz four years ago but has been pushed deep into the background is the question of changing or eliminating the Electoral College system. In  Colorado, a measure that would have allocated Electoral College votes proportionately was defeated by a nearly 2-1 margin.

Electoral College debate could be next
But if Kerry had won just 140,000 more votes in Ohio, he could have won the presidency while losing the popular vote by nearly 4 million. That would have been an ironic reversal from 2000, when Al Gore won the popular vote by 500,000.

Such an outcome could have generated bipartisan support for the constitutional change needed to eliminate the Electoral College, said Rob Richie, executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy. He also noted that Tuesday’s vote came close to creating an Electoral College tie that would have thrown the election into the House of Representatives.

“I think this does pave the way for a more sustained discussion” about the Electoral College, he said. “It’s not going to happen overnight, but we are hopeful that we’ll start more of a national conversation about it, and the partisan tenor of it can change.”

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