Setting scene to discredit the vote?

With Election Day only a week away, let us celebrate the thing that makes the United States great, the thing that makes it a beacon for the rest of the world. I speak, of course, of the legal challenge. Because no matter whom you support in this campaign and no matter who wins, if the results are close enough, get ready for an ugly Nov. 2 - followed by an uglier Nov. 3, 4, 5 and so on.

Already both parties have identified the states they believe will be tight and deployed election teams who are preparing for numerous "Floridas" in 2004 - looking to question the votes and nonvotes of every color, kind, and stripe.

Ah, the beauty of 21st century American Democracy.

"One man, one vote," the phrase we like to use to describe our political system, has always been a bit of a simplification and not just in Richard Daley's 1960s Chicago. The restrictions we placed historically on who could vote (women, African-Americans) and the ones we still place on some today (ex-convicts who have theoretically paid their debt to society, the transient) have always thinned the voting herd. Not to mention the role the Electoral College plays in determining the winner of the highest office in the land, which, let's be honest here, really means some votes do matter more than others.

But 2004 is shaping up to be something special. Take Ohio ... please. There the Republican Party says it has recruited more than 3,500 people to "monitor" the election - particularly in heavily Democratic areas of the state. The monitors will be able to challenge voters on one of four criteria: citizenship, age, county residency, and whether the potential voter has lived in Ohio for the past 30 days.

Why is the GOP taking such extraordinary moves? The party believes Democratic-leaning groups signed up ineligible people in a massive registration drive in the state. Operatives say they tried to contact 35,000 questionable newly registered voters by mail and had the notices returned as undeliverable. Hmmm.

But the Republicans are not simply taking a principled stand against potential voter fraud, something that would be responsible and proper if - big disclaimer coming - it were done properly. In September, Ohio's Republican Secretary of State sought to disqualify thousands of voter registrations that were printed on paper that he said was not heavy enough by state standards. He later reversed his position, but, Democrats say, only after some registrations were discarded.

So what's really going on here?

The math is simple. Large voter turnouts usually favor Democrats, so they are trying to pump up the rolls. At the same time, Republicans are doing whatever they can to make the numbers smaller. In the end, though, the real goal is not simply to affect the numbers, but to plant the seed in everyone's head that the game was fixed. Then, if the results are close, whichever campaign loses will have a list of problems to cite as they take their cases to court.

In other words, as you go to the polls next Tuesday, both sides will be looking for ways to make sure that if they get the short end of the stick they can try to discredit what you've done.

How it will all play out remains to be seen, of course. But in anticipation, it may be time for us all to move on from high-minded "one man, one vote" and consider a new phrase to describe our democracy: "Just win, baby." The slogan was the trademark of the nasty, bullying Oakland Raiders of the 1970s and '80s who ably applied it on the way to three championships.

Politics is not football though - when the game's over the job is just beginning. And after the ugliness, someone will have to pick up the pieces and try to govern this country.

Dante Chinni is a senior associate with the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism. He writes a twice-monthly political opinion column for the Monitor.

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