As Americans try to emerge from the political train that derailed on Election Day, federal officials, state authorities and media leaders should work to prevent the presidential vote from jumping the tracks in 2004.
Today's chaos could have been avoided had national news anchormen kept their big mouths shut early on Election Night. Instead, they behaved like hyperactive children furiously unwrapping their Christmas gifts -on December 23. The networks began projecting an Albert Gore victory in Florida at 7:49 p.m. Eastern time, even while residents of 10 Panhandle counties (in the Central Time Zone) still were voting. Hearing that Gore "won" Florida, some went home, thinking their votes no longer mattered. As Americans have learned so painfully, had just a few thousand more ballots been cast, Gore or Bush almost certainly would have garnered enough support to win outright and avoid the lengthy wrangling that has turned America into a global laughingstock.
A GOP-oriented group called Citizens for Honest Politics sued the networks November 14 on behalf of several Panhandle citizens who say the early projection for Gore kept them away from the polls and therefore disenfranchised them.
Beyond Florida, depressed turnout yielded tight victory margins and potential recounts and recriminations in Iowa, New Mexico and Wisconsin. Through their absence, voters who stayed home after Gore's fleeting Florida "win" also affected congressional and state-level races.
Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings, Dan Rather, their cable counterparts and the executives to whom they report should apologize to the American people and beg their forgiveness. By jumping the gun and getting Florida wrong -- not once, but twice -- they conceived and delivered a brand-new and easily avoided national trauma.
So far, the major media organizations blame the Voter News Service, an exit-polling consortium created by the Associated Press, ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox and NBC. While VNS may have flubbed its calculations, this does not excuse news outlets from double-checking VNS' math before shouting errors from coast to coast. The American republic would be stronger today had the media waited at least until voting had concluded in each state before forecasting how its residents cast their ballots.
It's not too much to ask news outlets to place citizenship above competition. While they have a First Amendment right to communicate accurate or even fallacious information, they should join Congress and the states in girding the voting system from potential mischief four years hence.
America should adopt uniform polling hours, with voting booths opening and closing simultaneously from Maine to Maui and Anchorage to Apalachicola. Voters -- especially in the west -- should not have to trudge to their precincts thinking their ballots don't matter, or simply stay home as a consequence. Voting from 6:00 a.m. to midnight Eastern time (1:00 a.m. - 7:00 p.m. in Hawaii) would give Americans 18 hours throughout the day to get to the polls, both before and after work.
While news organizations should reserve the right to interview voters as they leave their precincts, they also should respect such a new system and not beg to be regulated by blurting out the ending of the next election, even as it unspools.
Next, America must overhaul its polling places. The Florida fiasco vividly has revealed the flaws of punch-card voting, while the butterfly ballot is surely an endangered species. New Yorkers voted last week on 6,500 machines first used to pick congressmen nine days after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Spare parts for these devices were last produced in 1988. Naturally, these machines malfunction. Parag Khandhar told the Wall Street Journal that broken levers prevented him from choosing a state senator, assemblyman and a judge. "My right to vote was taken away from me," he said.
Finally, since dead people ought not choose America's public servants, Congress should mandate that states and cities remove them from their voter rolls. Requiring citizens to show photo identification would distinguish legitimate voters from impostors. Absentee and Internet voting also merit closer scrutiny given their capacity to enfranchise the undeserving.
America's political class is in disrepute at the moment. Come January, government executives, legislators and journalists can begin to regain the public's trust by building a voting system worthy of the reputation it enjoyed until last Election Day.