Are We Ready?

On Election Day, the whole world will be watching Ohio, and especially Cleveland, to see if we can vote without a hitch. In 2004 and 2006, we screwed up. How our voting system has gotten better, what could still go wrong — and how you can protect yo
Used to be, we just voted. We didn’t worry about whether our votes were counted. We assumed they were.

Then came Florida in 2000: butterfly ballots, lawyers, the woman with the bad makeup, the bug-eyed guy with a magnifying glass inspecting a chad. After that, we started thinking unnatural, un-American thoughts: suspicion of the sweet, elderly lady handing us our ballot, fear of what happens to ballots once they’re inside the box.

But the real scandal was how the friendly poll worker got abandoned, as confused as your grandmother if she tried to order off a small-plates menu. She got handed new, complex rules to follow, sometimes right on Election Day. Lines at the polls grew longer than ever, voting machines scarce. She had to set up new computer voting stations after only a little training. When she called downtown for help, busy signals mocked her.

Meanwhile, oblivious officials insisted the elections went great. With the authorities in denial, nutty amateurs and sloppy dilettantes stepped into the void, obsessing over Ohio, seeing a Republican conspiracy everywhere, eyeballing Election Day numbers through glasses tinted with distrust.

Post-Florida, weare Florida. It’s unbelievable we aren’t more pissed off about that. If our elections office were a business, it’d be Enron. If it were a sports team, we would’ve given its failures a two-word nickname (“The Bumble”).

So, last year, all of Cuyahoga County’s top elections officials lost their jobs. Cleveland just switched to its fourth voting system in four years. We know now that big cities in big swing states — that means us — have to count on our quirky laws and sleepy elections offices getting poked, critiqued, televised, demonized and blogged about for every mistake.

If the 2008 election goes into a brutal overtime, if it all comes down to swing-state Ohio again, and if Obama and McCain come to Cleveland to prod, investigate and sue, will Cleveland’s system fall apart, or hold up?

Here is some good news — or, at least, reason for cautious optimism. Like a turnaround team cleaning house after a disgraced CEO resigns, our new elections officials have proven more competent, careful, thorough and cooperative than those they replaced.

They aren’t always brilliant, wise or frugal: They’ve made hasty moves, clashed over every big change and cost us plenty of tax money. But they ended up choosing what looks like the best possible voting method for the presidential election.

It helps to have people with a clue in charge. But the last few years have taught Ohio not to trust the government with an election. The best defense of our right to vote is an informed voter. So we’re not only letting you know what others are doing to protect your vote — we’re also telling you what you can do, before and on Election Day, to be entirely sure it counts.

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