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Will every vote count?

STOP US IF if you've heard this before: Yesterday, there were at least three voting lawsuits pending in various state and federal courts.

STOP US IF if you've heard this before: Yesterday, there were at least three voting lawsuits pending in various state and federal courts.

It was a testimony to the lack of coherence in election law - and a promise of confusion, and maybe worse, on Tuesday, Election Day.

Not only do election policies differ from county to county, but interpretations of those policies can differ from polling place to polling place.

The 2000 election debacle highlighted the fragility of the U.S. electoral system. In the eight years since, awareness - and some paranoia - has grown, but uniformity and consistency haven't.

So here we are again, facing essentially the same issues. And here we are again, with no time to make considered decisions on what the best way is to help Pennsylvanians vote. However the courts decide this week, these issues will remain beyond Tuesday.

Tempest in a T-shirt. In a year in which many citizens have more text messages on their cell phones from Barack Obama than they have from their Significant Others - and get more robo-calls from candidates at home than they do from their grandchildren - it's hard to see a McCain T-shirt or a "Change" button as the intrusive "electioneering" prohibited inside polling places. In Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, it never has been: A voter could wear a partisan T-shirt or button at the polls, as long as there was no other attempt at persuasion.

But other counties interpreted the election code differently, and some people were kept from voting unless they covered up.

Even when the state issued an advisory opinion that partisan clothing didn't count as prohibited "electioneering," it didn't have the power to make all counties follow its interpretation. Then two Pittsburgh-area election officials filed suit against the opinion in Commonwealth Court.

This is a question that ought to be interpreted consistently across the commonwealth - and allow voters to dress the way they want. It's a matter of free expression. Besides, just what constitutes "partisan political" expression is open to wide interpretation: A Palin shirt may be obviously political, but what about a shirt that says, "Hockey Mom"?

Emergency. During the Pennsylvania primary, when machines malfunctioned and lines grew long, some voters were given emergency ballots, some were told to come back later, some had to stand in line for hours. Our secretary of state said emergency ballots should be used only when all the voting machines in a polling place are malfunctioning; a lawsuit, supported by U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, D-Phila., asked that the ballots be available if 50 percent of the machines are down. Yesterday, a federal court ruled in favor of that suit.

Even though the lateness of the decision makes confusion more likely, and even though emergency ballots may not be counted immediately, we think the 50 percent threshold makes sense. But it still makes sense to look at this question more closely once the election is over.

Fraud? The Republican lawsuit against ACORN's voter registration, which had a hearing yesterday in Commonwealth Court, was the local attempt to suggest the community organization is trying to steal the election. This entire issue would evaporate if Pennsylvania adopted Election Day Registration, which has increased turnout in the eight states that have it.

We can hardly be a model for democracy around the world if we can't guarantee that every vote counts. *