Trust, but Verify 

At a time when partisans of the political right still decline to accept the results of the 2008 presidential election — a case in point being the "birther" movement, which challenges the very right to citizenship of President Obama — it is unsettling to have on our own doorstep what would seem to be an extended controversy over an election outcome.

This one — an ongoing legal challenge being pursued by nine Democratic candidates for county offices who lost their elections to Republican opponents on August 5th — also shows every evidence of going on unabated for a while. Even if some judicial finding should come swiftly to spike the controversy, appeals are likely, and even when these have run their course, animosities and suspicions will doubtless remain.

There already exists in the African-American community and among Democrats (two entities that substantially overlap) a feeling that chicanery was attempted at high levels to subvert the results of elections in 1974, 1991, and 2006. The first two of these saw, respectively, Harold Ford Sr. elected to Congress and Willie Herenton elected mayor of Memphis, but only — conspiracy theorists have it — after resolute action by citizens staked out at the Election Commission prevented ballot theft. The Shelby County election of 2006, when some voting-machine breakdowns and apparent margins of victory for Democratic candidates vanished overnight, further stoked disbelief and has become, rightly or wrongly, an oft-cited precedent for disputants in the current challenge, the central core of which is another mechanical glitch. This one involves the erroneous feeding of early-voting data into the election rolls for August 5th, a circumstance that put some 5,400 voters in jeopardy of losing the right to cast a ballot on election day.

"Human error," said the Election Commission, composed of three Republicans and two Democrats. Foul play, say disputants, some of whom claim outright that the county election was rigged or stolen. Bev Harris of Seattle, one of two consultants hired by the defeated Democrats to investigate the election results, asserts that the whole thing is related to an effort to "intimidate" voters by a "ruthless" authority figure, District Attorney General Bill Gibbons. (See "Politics," p. 14.) Fresh eyes are all well and good, but we doubt that Harris is seeing the local landscape with 20/20 vision. Gibbons, himself one of the voters initially turned away from voting on August 5th, has built his political career on crossover voting, and we can't quite see him as some diabolical Republican Machiavelli.

But such views rise to the fore whenever there is legitimate doubt, and in this case the reigning personae of the Election Commission — majority Republicans, minority Democrats, and civil servant administrators alike — have screwed up so many different ways, technical and otherwise, as to create legitimate grounds for doubt.

Like it or not, the legal challenge is something more than the "conspiratorial paranoia" that assistant county attorney Danny Presley, representing the Election Commission, calls it. At root, it is a demand that — as outgoing trustee Regina Morrison Newman said last week — questions about this election be "investigated and resolved for all citizens and for every future election."

As a former president of the United States famously said, "Trust, but verify."

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