Now's the time when everyone gets sentimental about our great civic endeavor, voting. But it's often governed by Murphy's Law more than by constitutional law.
I write about elections and voting rights, which means that I end up focusing on the ways in which mismanagement, unreliable technology and deliberate partisan tactics influence who votes, who doesn't, whose votes count and whether the count is accurate.
I don't traffic in conspiracy theories. But much can go wrong between the time when the polls open and when the Electoral College tally passes the magic 2-7-0. So much, in fact, that American elections remain a great guessing game.
Here's a road map of the possible pitfalls or lucky breaks awaiting 2008's voters.
Minefield awaiting voters
Voter purged. Surprise! Your registration was deleted because it didn't match government databases, despite their known error rates. The Social Security Administration reported 2.4 million voter-registration mismatches in the first nine months of 2008. Proceed, provisional ballot in hand.
Voter confusion. You didn't know your polling place had been moved, so you called 1-866-OUR-VOTE for help. Nearly 60 percent of hotline calls involve registration and polling place inquiries. Move forward three spaces. Now go vote.
Absentee ballot absent. The government contractor didn't mail out ballots in time. It happens – in Denver this year, 18,055 ballots went undelivered. Lose a turn. Call the county to see whether you can vote today. (If you're overseas, forget it.)
Early voting hours extended. Amazingly, your governor made voting easier! At least that's what Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and N.C. Gov. Mike Easley did last week when they ordered early voting extended, although legal issues remain. Skip ahead 10 spaces.
Computer crash. More early voting centers have opened, but the statewide voter database crashed. This happened in Georgia last week. Lose a turn, wait four hours in line to vote.
Touch screen touchy. You voted early, but the e-voting machine kept selecting the wrong guy. This has occurred in several states including West Virginia, Tennessee, Texas and Colorado. Wait for a new machine or backup paper ballot.
Short lines. Your polling place is open, and there's barely a line. Either you're lucky or you're voting in a neighborhood with a low minority population.
Advancement Project, a civil rights group, has documented disparities in polling place resources along racial lines in Virginia and Pennsylvania. Move forward six spaces.
Ballot confusion. You selected a straight party ticket, but that didn't include the presidential vote. (In North Carolina, a straight party vote does not include the top of the ticket.) Go back four spaces and get angrier and angrier.
Unexpected kindness. Poll workers move the elderly and people with disabilities to the front of the line. (This is the law, though it can be unevenly applied.) Move forward 10 spaces, cast your vote.
Machine breakdown. E-voting machines are pulled after software errors, but there are too few backup paper ballots on hand. Pennsylvania's secretary of the commonwealth was ordered by a federal judge to provide more backup ballots. Voting rights groups are worried. Lose a turn, watch lawyers get busy.
Partisan challenges. A party worker questions your signature, holding up the line while you pull out your ID. The GOP has sued in several states for access to voter records that could be used for Election Day challenges. Move forward one space, get provisional ballot, hope that it counts.
Vote count. Poll workers and campaign observers watch machines spit out vote totals, hoping that the software works. Across the country, partisan and nonpartisan groups will deploy thousands of observers. Cross your fingers and wait.