THE REAL race issue in this campaign is not Barack Obama's ethnic heritage. The real issue of race - and class and age - is whether a bunch of anti-democracy (and often anti-Democratic) tactics targeting minorities, students, new voters and the poor will work as well they have in the past.
Maybe Michigan Republicans never intended to challenge the residency of voters whose homes had been foreclosed. They hotly denied a news report on the alleged "lose your home, lose your vote" plan that led Barack Obama and the Democratic National Committee to file suit in federal court. But such a plan would have been only the most obvious form of suppression techniques set up to keep legitimate voters from casting ballots.
The presidential-election system already is an unholy mess, in large part because it is managed at the local level. According to the Washington Post, more than 10,000 jurisdictions run voting operations, with polling places staffed largely by amateurs with varying levels of training. Small mistakes can have large impacts. For example, in the Pennsylvania primary this year, 27 percent of provisional ballots in Allegheny County were disqualified because poll workers didn't fill out the envelopes properly.
A dizzying patchwork of voting regulations, and idiosyncratic interpretations provide ample opportunities for serious mischief.
Some examples: In Virginia, election officials erroneously warned college students that registering to vote in their college town could imperil their financial aid. In Florida, the secretary of state intends to strictly enforce a purge of voters if their registrations do not perfectly match drivers' licenses, down to middle initials.
Well-documented are official-sounding, untraceable calls into minority neighborhoods - and fliers now being distributed locally - falsely warning that anyone with an outstanding warrant, or even a traffic ticket or credit problems, might be arrested if they show up to vote.
Confusing rules and increased challenges feed one of the most powerful voter-suppression techniques: long lines. There's no way to count how many would-be voters simply go home after an hour, or three or five, waiting at the polls.
Officials try to justify these onerous requirements as preventing voter fraud, the preposterous notion that thousands of Americans are trying to cast more than one vote, or pretending to be legitimate voters when they're not. In 2002, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft launched a massive nationwide campaign to prosecute voter fraud - and netted 24 convictions, none for impersonating someone else. But the myth persists.
Congress held hearings last week to investigate evidence of voter suppression. An army of lawyers is being readied to spring into action on Election Day, and Web sites have been established to report abuses. In the Philadelphia area, the Committee of Seventy is recruiting volunteers to monitor polling places. As Monday's deadline for registration approaches, election activists are urging people to double-check their registrations.
But even if our own election apparatus operates adequately, another presidential election has come around without the nation addressing the systemic problems that affect us all.
Advancement Project, a national voting-rights organization, points out that the Constitution does not guarantee every U.S. citizen the right to vote. If it did, a uniform set of voting laws could be established throughout the nation, reducing the potential for voter suppression. Getting such an amendment passed is a long-term project we should begin on Nov. 5.
All politics should not be local.*