Andrew Gumbel

Are We Witnessing the Death of Representative Democracy?

The following is an excerpt from the book Down for the Count by Andrew Gumbel (The New Press, 2016): 

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Real Estate Heir Robert Durst Admits in HBO Documentary: 'I Killed Them All, Of Course'

Robert Durst, the wealthy heir to a New York real estate fortune whose stranger-than-fiction involvement in three mysterious deaths has baffled prosecutors and police investigators across the US for decades, made a veiled confession in a documentary aired on Sunday night that he “killed them all”. 

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Kaiser Mental Health Workers Strike Demands 'No More Suicides'

Mental health workers at one of California’s biggest medical care providers began a week-long strike on Monday, seeking to draw attention to low staffing levels that have already led to state investigations, a hefty fine and class-action lawsuits triggered by the deaths of patients whose families blame Kaiser Permanente for failing to provide the care they needed.

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Amanda Knox Might Get the Retrial She Deserves If Anyone Considers the Facts

The longer the Italian courts consider the Meredith Kercher case – and we have now had three trials, six presiding judges, two hearings before the Italian high court and a third on the way – the more the country's institutions of justice have covered themselves in shame.

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The Bizarre Re-conviction of Amanda Knox and the Nightmare of the Italian Justice System

This article originally appeared at the Los Angeles Review of Books, and is reprinted here with their permission.

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How Did a Form of Torture Become Policy in America’s Prison System?

In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville visited the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia to observe first-hand the effects of a peculiar — and, at the time, entirely novel — form of incarceration. The Quakers, who had opened the prison two years earlier, believed that long-term solitary confinement was an ideal form of religious penitence (whence the termpenitentiary) and would hasten prisoners’ rehabilitation and reintegration into society. They saw it not as extreme punishment but as a progressive idea, far preferable to the giant holding pens typical of the age, where mutilations and violence among prisoners were common, and spiritual betterment all but unthinkable.

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How Safe Is This Election?

Not so long ago, when Karl Rove was still dreaming of a permanent Republican majority based on his "50 percent plus one" model for fighting and winning elections, 2008 was shaping up as possibly the dirtiest election season yet.

The plan was straightforward: to use every legislative and executive lever available to the GOP to suppress the votes of minorities, students, the poor, the transient and the elderly; and to denounce any attempt by the other side to level the playing field as a monstrous exercise in systemic voter fraud.

A lot of pieces of that plan are still in place and could still pose a threat to the integrity of the November 4 elections if any one of them -- a crucial Senate race, say, if not also the race for the presidency -- turns out to be remotely close.

Voter ID laws passed by GOP-majority legislatures in Georgia, Indiana and elsewhere serve as thinly veiled mechanisms for suppressing opposition voters, because those without driver's licenses or other forms of government-issued identity cards are more likely to be Democrats.

In several states, the Republican Party has made plans to challenge the legitimacy of thousands of voters, in some cases using a notorious, legally dubious technique known as "caging," whereby the party sends out nonforwardable mail to low-income or minority households (the people likely to move frequently or to be victims of subprime mortgage foreclosures) and uses returned envelopes to question the eligibility of the addressees.

Some Republican-run states, most notably Florida, have introduced absurdly strict standards for the admission of new voters to the rolls, making it likely that thousands, if not tens of thousands, of them will have to go to extraordinary lengths on election day to prove that they have the right to cast a ballot. History suggests many of these new voters will either give up when challenged or fail to show up at all.

Most serious, the Republicans have sought to use the Justice Department to legitimize these efforts and, in some cases, to extend them -- by paying close attention to the (mostly nonexistent) problem of individual ballot fraud while showing little or no interest in protecting the rights of minority voters, as the Voting Rights Act mandates that the department do.

The GOP has been laying this groundwork over the past several election cycles -- using each technique either as a means to squeak ahead in tight races or as a pretext for challenging results in the event of a narrow loss. We know, for example, that in 2004 the party investigated the eligibility of more than half a million voters across the country, challenged 74,000 of them directly on election day and had a plan in place to challenge tens of thousands more in such swing states as Nevada, New Mexico, Florida and Pennsylvania in the event that John Kerry came out ahead of George W. Bush in the race for the White House. (An e-mail trail setting out these plans was uncovered after the election by the PBS program Now.)

In 2008 the techniques for challenging voters this way -- or for deterring or disenfranchising them in the first place -- have become more widespread and sophisticated. Just look at the way the Republicans have demonized ACORN, the low-income advocacy group that works to register new minority voters.

In every election cycle since 2004, ACORN has been put through the wringer for supposedly aiding and abetting voter fraud -- usually in ways designed to sway the public against the Democrats in the days before a key state vote. While ACORN has had well-advertised problems getting its low-wage workforce to produce reliable voter registration lists, those lists have not been shown to result in a single fraudulently cast ballot.

This year, that demonization has taken on vast new proportions, presumably connected to ACORN's claim to have registered 1.3 million new voters. The FBI has launched an investigation that smells, once again, of political interference in the electoral process by the Justice Department. Republican operatives have accused ACORN, absurdly, of perpetrating the subprime mortgage lending crisis [see Peter Dreier and John Atlas, "The GOP's Blame-ACORN Game," page 20] and of being a "quasi-criminal organization" -- hinting darkly that ACORN-registered voters may not be eligible. One think tank that sees its mission as bashing ACORN on behalf of its big-business backers, the Employment Policies Institute, even calls it "a multi-million-dollar, multinational conglomerate."

The strange thing about this and the rest of the GOP attack machine is that somewhere along the way, the wheels started coming off. This is partly a result of straightforward political warfare: the groundwork laid by GOP operatives may be more extensive than in the past, but so are the campaigns to denounce their efforts, from the likes of Common Cause, the Century Foundation, the Brennan Center for Justice and other organizations that have issued report after report exposing the dirt and incompetence in the electoral system and calling the Republicans' bluff on the supposed scourge of individual voter fraud. It certainly helps that the denunciations are now coming from well-known groups with serious academic credentials and a commitment to accurate research -- a welcome change from the days when hardworking but underqualified Internet campaigners were breathlessly denouncing nonexistent political plots cooked up by the Republicans and the makers of touch-screen voting machines.

The change of mood is also a reflection of broader political realities. Barack Obama is ahead in the polls, the public is of a mind to view Republican maneuvering of all kinds in a less than favorable light and attempts to deter or suppress Democratic voters are up against the remarkable surge in enthusiasm and voter registration behind the Obama ticket. The Republicans were reported to be thinking about mounting a vote-caging operation against the former owners of foreclosed homes in one Michigan county, only to deny any such intent when the plan became public. In Montana, an attempt to disenfranchise 6,000 people in Democratic-leaning districts has sparked similar outrage. Dirty electioneering, in other words, may boost a party headed toward a narrow victory, as it did for the Republicans in 2004, but it can sink a floundering party like a stone. Voters can smell the desperation, and they don't like it.

The Republicans also made the mistake, as they have in so many policy areas, of overreaching and alienating even their own supporters. The US Attorneys scandal was probably the starkest example, especially since at least two if not more of the fired federal prosecutors were given the boot for their failure to pursue individual voter fraud. David Iglesias, the New Mexico prosecutor at the eye of the storm, described in his memoir In Justice earlier this year how the White House first went after Todd Graves in Missouri, to see if there would be a backlash, and became emboldened when they didn't detect much of a reaction. Another eight fired Attorneys later, the new Democratic majority in Congress was alarmed enough to start investigating -- and expose the Bush administration's gross political manipulations. Iglesias, interestingly, was a staunch Republican but refused to file unsubstantiated voter fraud charges when he knew any half-serious judge would throw them straight out.

More Republicans standing on principle have surfaced in the heat of the McCain-Obama battle. In October, Montana Lieutenant Governor John Bohlinger declared publicly he was "appalled at the leadership of my political party" for vote suppression activities that have "no place in a democracy."

It would be a mistake, though, to count on other John Bohlingers coming forward to denounce every piece of skulduggery. In fact, for those with a mind to be alarmed, 2008 is already sounding several warning bells. Republicans in at least three states -- Ohio, Florida and Wisconsin -- have sued the electoral authorities to try to expand their power to challenge voters. (The Supreme Court thwarted those efforts in Ohio, but the other cases are still open.) In plenty of others they have telegraphed their intention to go after voter eligibility among certain choice demographic groups -- students in Virginia, for example. Several swing states have tried to pass laws specifically outlawing caging and other vote-challenging techniques, but none, in the past couple of years, have successfully pushed them through their state legislatures and onto the desks of their governors.

Usually, vote suppression efforts come to light only in the last couple of weeks before election day. This time, though, the reports of foul play, or attempted foul play, started to pour in unnervingly early. "It's exhausting from this end," says one of the country's leading voter protection activists, Jonah Goldman of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. "Every day we get another three or four things we need to investigate. From a political perspective, the campaigns understand the mechanisms of elections a lot better than they ever did before. At the same time, we have by far the most robust and sophisticated voter protection program we've ever had. We've matured very far, on both sides of the issue."

Goldman is no apologist for the Democrats. On the contrary, he sees plenty of flaws to go around in the two-party system and in this country's massively devolved, loophole-ridden electoral system. The only reason the Democrats aren't causing more trouble of their own this season, he feels, is that they aren't as scared of losing. That said, voter suppression is typically a Republican tactic, going back decades. (Democrats, when they cheat, prefer to pad the rolls with supporters rather than purge them of their adversaries.)

Some of the possible vote suppression stems as much from organizational chaos as from ill will. This year, several states have struggled with a federal mandate to streamline their voter databases, leading to wide concern that eligible voters are being purged. The New York Times has found that tens of thousands of names were being struck from lists or blocked from registering in six swing states -- Colorado, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Nevada and North Carolina -- in apparent violation of federal law. In three states -- Louisiana, Michigan and Colorado -- the number of people who have died or moved out of state is far exceeded by the number of names taken off the voting rolls.

In a report on voter purges published earlier this year, the Brennan Center denounced a process it said was often "shrouded in secrecy, prone to error, and vulnerable to manipulation." Sometimes a highly technocratic point, like Florida's insistence that every voter registration form should provide an exact match of the name on existing state records, can have profound political ramifications. If a lot of people are going to get disqualified, it is probably the wealthier, more comfortable voters who will have time to present the proper paperwork and get themselves reinstated on election day. More transient voters, or voters with inflexible low-wage jobs, are likelier to give up once they have been told they can vote by provisional ballot only.

We can expect similar chaos with the allocation of voting machines, especially in new battleground states like Virginia and North Carolina, where the turnout for the presidential election is likely to break records. The voter registration problem and the machine allocation problem can be related, since new registrations are often a guide to likely turnout on election day. Since Virginia has a backlog on processing its registration forms, its chances of finding enough machines to satisfy demand look even dimmer. "Virginia is not preparing well," Goldman said.

To the extent that the problems affect minority voters, one might expect some sort of oversight or intervention by the Justice Department. Under the Bush administration, of course, the department has taken the opposite tack -- rushing to find individual voter fraud where it doesn't exist but filing no voter intimidation suits under Section 11(b) of the Voting Rights Act, except for one case in Mississippi where the aggrieved minority just happened to be whites. There's still a chance the department will clean up its act -- for example, it could choose to deploy teams of lawyers to problem areas in the South, as opposed to sending staffers, as it did in 2004, to keep an eye on crucial battleground states like Ohio. Typically, the Justice Department doesn't announce its observation plans until two or three days before the election. "We'll have to wait and see whether there has been an improvement or not," says a cautious Kristen Clarke of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. We probably shouldn't hold our breath.

In the end, even the most insidious vote suppression technique makes just a marginal difference -- one half-percentage point here, another there -- and comes seriously into play only in a close race. Such tactics can't prevent an Obama landslide, if that is what we are about to see, or overturn a two- to three-point victory in any given state. Anyone who cares about fair elections, though, should be looking beyond just this presidential election. The Republicans who have dreamed up these techniques are thinking long-term strategy over many cycles, not just short-term advantage. The day may also come when Democrats are tempted to play dirty in their own ways -- although they have never attempted anything on a national scale as Republicans have. It will take many years of work to repair America's tattered voting system. Keeping a close eye and exposing as much of the dirt as possible in this election, though, is a good place to start.

California Cities Vote on Smoking Ban in Apartments

Two California cities are pushing anti-smoking legislation to previously unseen limits by banning tenants from lighting up inside apartment buildings.

Leading the way is Belmont, south of San Francisco, which threatened at one stage to ban smoking anywhere within city limits. Instead, Belmont city council contented itself with a ban on smoking in any building where residents share a common floor or ceiling. It is also banning all smoking within 20ft of a doorway, a common area, and areas used by children. A final vote on the new rules is expected next week, with implementation in November.

In southern California, Calabasas, a suburban community in the hills above Malibu, is going even further. The city council was preparing for a vote last night that would expand anti-smoking laws to encompass apartment buildings.

The proposal would exempt smokers already living in a place where they have a habit of lighting up, but would apply to them when they moved.

Intriguingly, it also exempts long-standing homeowners -- it only applies to renters and property owners in newly built condominium buildings.

Calabasas has taken to calling itself Clean Air Calabasas, a Smoke-Free City. In March, it approved an ordinance banning smoking "everywhere in the city except as otherwise provided".

Smokers in the town can light up in shopping centre car parks and other outdoor areas "in which no non-smoker is present." That means pavements, streets, bus stops and parks are off-limits, except perhaps in the dead of night.

The new measures have enraged libertarians and provoked a handful of death threats against the council members who sponsored them. They have raised eyebrows even among anti-smoking activists, who say that outdoor tobacco bans just push the habit inside people's homes, where children can be exposed to the fumes.

Wolfowitz Tried to Censor World Bank on Climate Change

The Bush administration has consistently thwarted efforts by the World Bank to include global warming in its calculations when considering whether to approve major investments in industry and infrastructure, according to documents made public through a watchdog yesterday.

On one occasion, the White House's pointman at the bank, the now disgraced Paul Wolfowitz, personally intervened to remove the words "climate change" from the title of a bank progress report and ordered changes to the text of the report to shift the focus away from global warming.

But the issue predates Mr Wolfowitz's appointment as president of the bank in June 2005. According to the Government Accountability Project (GAP), which has tracked efforts to censor debate on global warming, environmental specialists at the World Bank tried unsuccessfully to press for consideration of greenhouse-gas emissions in a paper written -- but never published -- in 2002.

It was politics that prevented the publication of that paper, according to one senior bank insider who spoke to the Los Angeles Times, and politics that has been the principal obstacle to progress since.

Only now, with the Bush administration on the ropes politically and the scientific evidence for global warming reaching such critical mass that even President George Bush has been forced to acknowledge its reality, are those same bank officials trying again to put the issue on the agenda. "Our biggest obstacle has been that politically, [climate change] is very controversial," Kristalina Georgieva, the bank's strategy and operations director for sustainable development, told the LA Times.

She said that, even under the best of circumstances, it will be at least two years before the bank starts measuring the impact of fossil fuel-related projects on the planet's health. "We are not moving fast enough," she added. "It's not possible to be moving fast enough."

The GAP has uncovered evidence of one striking instance of Bush administration censorship. In 2006, the bank's vice presidents responded to a request from the Group of Eight industrialised countries and commissioned a draft report entitled Climate Change, Energy and Sustainable Development: Towards an Investment Framework. They endorsed the report, according to the minutes of a meeting obtained by the GAP.

Subsequently, however, Mr Wolfowitz's office put out a memo asking the team to rework the paper, "shifting from a climate lens mainly to a clean-energy lens." The edited paper issued a few months later was eventually called Clean Energy and Development: Towards an Investment Framework.

The World Bank has come under fire from environmental groups for a number of decisions, including a recent grant to develop lignite mining and power plants in Kosovo. Lignite -- or brown coal -- pollutes the air heavily when burnt and is generally regarded as one of the dirtiest fuel sources on the planet.

The investment appears to go against the bank's own policy, from 2001, whereby it decided to try to phase out oil and gas investments by 2008 and to extend an existing moratorium on investments in coal mining.

The GAP put out a report in March detailing similar problems at other agencies, most notably the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration which, among other duties, tracks hurricanes and other extreme weather phenomena. The report cited "objectionable and possibly illegal restrictions on the communication of scientific information to the media" -- including censorship of interviews and press releases.

More recently, the GAP has reported the Bush administration's refusal to consider climate change as it prepares to expand the national air transport system threefold over the next 20 years. A multi-agency group called the Next Generation Air Transportation System has simply ignored global warming in its past two annual reports.

Mr Wolfowitz was forced to step down in June after it emerged that he had given a lucrative sinecure to his girlfriend and offered her excessive pay rises.

Karl Rove Re-Aligned

Bye bye, Turd Blossom. Karl Rove's dream of refashioning the American political landscape and ushering in a generation of Republican rule is officially dead. The radical Republican revolution, which began with Barry Goldwater, hit paydirt with Ronald Reagan and reached its highwater mark with the 1994 Contract With America, has come to a screeching halt, and it's largely the fault of George W's consigliere.

Make no mistake: when Rove was good, he was very, very good. He understood exactly how to manipulate, divide and intimidate the electorate so he could eke out the narrowest of winning margins -- the 50 per cent plus one model, which was as much as the radical Republican policy agenda was ever going to muster. But divisiveness will only take you so far. Politics is, above all, the art of coalition building. Without the Rehnquist Supreme Court, without a supine Democratic Party in opposition and, above all, without 9/11, he would never have made it even this far.

When Rove was first gearing Bush up for the White House, his model was the 1896 election that ushered in 30 years of Republican dominance at the federal level, smashed the Populist movement that might otherwise have formed the basis of a European-style party of labor, and slowly refashioned the Republicans themselves into the party of big business and deregulation, not the more inclusive values of its Lincolnian origins.

Rove was certainly right to see divisiveness as a major part of the 1896 watershed. The country was literally split into two, with the segregationist Democrats asserting one-party rule in the old confederate South and the Republicans taking control just about everywhere else. His mistake, though, was to identify too closely with Mark Hanna, the Ohio business entrepreneur who guided William McKinley to the presidency. Hanna may have been a unfettered free-market Republican, but McKinley was not. This was, in fact, the onset of the Progressive Era, which started under McKinley, flourished under Teddy Roosevelt and continued until America's entry into World War One. When the more conservative, Hanna-friendly wing of the party took over in the 1920s, it spelled the beginning of the end, culiminating in the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression.

Under Rove, the Republicans have compressed the 30-year arc of a century ago into a scant six years. And now the party's over. The Democrats may still be unsure what they stand for, but in terms of campaign strategy they have successfully played catch-up. Howard Dean's controversial 50-state approach - modelled in part on the grassroots legwork the Republicans started in the 1960s and 1970s - made it possible for Democrats to seize the initiative even in states like Arkansas, Kentucky and Wyoming where, for the past four years, they were largely absent. Having been burned by state ballot initiatives on gay marriage and abortion in 2004, which drew the Republican faithful to the polls, the Democrats fought back this time with initiatives of their own on stem cell research and the minimum wage.

The Republicans themselves, meanwhile, are quickly understanding that the only way to recover from the drubbing they've just received is to move back to the center, and fast. Arnold Schwarzenegger has already figured that out -- ditching the hard-right rhetoric that led him to humiliation in last year's special election in California and making common cause with the Democrats on everything from global warming to new infrastructure bonds. The Governator was rewarded for his bipartisanship with a landslide re-election victory - making him the happiest Republican in America this week by quite some distance. Schwarzenegger, never one to suffer an excess of modesty, has even ditched the GOP red white and blue colors for a softer green and orange. Consensus and coalition-building is his new watchword. If the Republican have any sense, they'll follow Arnold's lead.

The Unsolved Mystery of the Oklahoma City Bombing

Long before the Iraq war, long before 9/11, the U.S. government had already mastered the art of fluffing its intelligence on a looming threat, botching the response and then working furiously to cover its mistakes.

The 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building -- at the time the worst peacetime atrocity committed on U.S. soil, with 168 dead and hundreds more injured -- has been largely overshadowed by the destruction of the World Trade Center and all that has followed. But the storyline is nevertheless unnervingly familiar.

Like the failure to prevent 9/11, this is a case of the federal government first failing to recognize or act on crucial warning signs and then claiming there were no warning signs at all. It's about coming up with a plausible cover story and sticking to it, no matter what. In contrast to the most glaring failures of the Bush administration, though, the government's bluff on Oklahoma City has gone largely uncalled. Timothy McVeigh, the alleged mastermind, was sentenced to death and executed, while Terry Nichols, supposedly his only accomplice, is serving a life sentence. And that, for most people, has been the end of the story. Only the dogged persistence of a handful of amateur investigators, academics, journalists and lawyers has revealed more uncomfortable truths about the bombing and who might have committed it. Thanks to a flurry of Freedom of Information and other lawsuits, the FBI's own paperwork is beginning to seriously contradict the official version of what happened. And more is being revealed all the time.

We now know, from court records and official documents, that at least two undercover operatives were gathering information on Timothy McVeigh and a group of like-minded white supremacists in the early spring of 1995, one of whom gave her government handlers specific information about a plan to blow up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

We know that, after the bombing, the government expended considerable energy trying to track down a John Doe 2 and other possible accomplices of McVeigh and Terry Nichols -- the "others unknown" cited in the federal indictment -- before abruptly changing tack nine months later and insisting that McVeigh was the lone mastermind behind the attack and, eventually, that no one else other than Nichols had been involved.

And we know that, as the lone-bomber theory has come under increasingly skeptical scrutiny in recent years, the FBI and other federal agencies have expended considerable energy blocking access to their investigative paper trail. When one of the government informants from the spring of 1995 went public about her role, she found herself prosecuted -- unsuccessfully -- for allegedly harboring her own bomb plots; she has since gone to ground, too afraid to say more. At least one key government official, the state medical examiner in Oklahoma City, has indicated he was not given key information he needed to do his job. And one of the senior FBI agents involved in the early stages of the bombing probe now believes that enough new evidence has come to the surface from the files of his own agency to warrant a new federal grand jury investigation.

Perhaps most unnerving is the trail of dead bodies that has turned up over the past decade under less than transparent circumstances. A neo-Nazi bank robber called Richard Guthrie, one of the leading John Doe 2 candidates -- though never publicly identified as such -- was found hanging in a prison cell in July 1996. Kenney Trentadue, a man who looked very much like Guthrie, right down to a snake-motif tattoo on one arm, and appears to have been mistaken for him when he was picked up on a parole violation on the Mexican border in the summer of 1995, wound up bloodied and traumatized from head to toe in his cell at a federal detention facility in Oklahoma City. The feds claimed he hanged himself. An inmate who later came forward and claimed he witnessed Trentadue being beaten to death by his interrogators was himself found hanging in a federal prison cell in 2000.

The person who has done most of the recent work in unmasking the mysteries of Oklahoma City is Kenney Trentadue's brother Jesse, a Salt Lake City lawyer who has not only fought to have his brother's death recognized as murder, not suicide, but is also suing the FBI to release a trove of documents that might shed light on the links among McVeigh, Guthrie and a group of Guthrie's associates widely suspected -- at least outside the confines of the Justice Department -- of being McVeigh's bombing accomplices.

Jesse Trentadue has been all over the federal government like a bad case of lice ever since the authorities at the Federal Transfer Center in Oklahoma City unsuccessfully tried to arrange for Kenney's battered body to be cremated before the family had had a chance to look at it or even learn what kind of injuries he had sustained. He not only insisted on the family taking receipt of the body, he has also raised question after question about the government's credibility. Jesse has gotten a prison guard to admit under oath that he lied when he testified about seeing Kenney hanging by a bedsheet, gotten the authorities to admit they never told the medical examiner's office that someone else's blood was found in Kenney's cell, and cast compelling doubt on the suicide note Kenney supposedly scrawled in pencil on his cell wall saying he had lost his mind.

Over the years, as the Kenney Trentadue case has become increasingly intertwined with the Oklahoma City bombing case, Jesse Trentadue has won some key allies in both the federal prison bureaucracy and law enforcement. Just over a year ago, a former FBI agent gave him two heavily redacted agency teletypes connecting some of the dots between Richard Guthrie and McVeigh. Trentadue took the documents to federal court to demand unredacted versions, along with any other documents that might shed light on the Guthrie-McVeigh connection [legal briefing]. The legal process is grinding on, but Trentadue has already obtained one key ruling in his favor from U.S. District Judge Dale Kimball and squeezed more than 100 pages of (even more heavily) redacted documents out of the FBI.

Even in redacted form, these documents prove for the first time that FBI investigators were pursuing links between the Oklahoma City bombing and a series of 22 bank robberies carried out across the Midwest in 1993-1995 by a neo-Nazi group calling itself the Aryan Republican Army. Guthrie was a member of the ARA. So too were two members of a skinhead band from Philadelphia, Scott Stedeford and Kevin McCarthy, as well as an old friend of Guthrie's, Pete Langan, the brains behind the gang who also, curiously, happened to be a closet transvestite with a penchant for shaving his pubic hair and painting his toenails pink.

All were tried and convicted on robbery charges only. But it's now clear the feds thought they were involved in a whole lot more.

The first teletype, from January 1996, puts BOMBROB, the FBI's code word for the bank robbery investigation, under the general heading OKBOMB, its name for the bombing investigation. The second teletype, from August 1996, spells out what the ARA was suspected of planning with the tens of thousands of dollars it stole from the banks. In the subject line, the ARA members' names are grouped along with the topic "Domestic Security/Terrorism." The "threatened harm," it says, included political assassination, genocide and bombings. Guthrie and another member of the gang are reported to have admitted giving someone -- the name is blacked out -- part of the bank robbery loot.

It is already widely suspected that the financing for the Oklahoma City bomb came from the ARA, and indeed that McVeigh was an occasional participant in the bank robberies. McVeigh once told his sister Jennifer that money he passed on to her had come from a bank heist. Does this document show that the FBI had evidence cementing the link between the ARA and McVeigh?

For a certain answer to that, we will have to wait a little longer. Judge Kimball has seen unredacted versions of all the released FBI teletypes, and is expected to rule imminently on whether to make them public. He has indicated fairly strongly that he will, having ruled last May that "the public's interest in knowing the information [in the teletypes] outweighs the interest of the [named] individuals in keeping such information confidential."

His ruling could, if it goes in Trentadue's favor, finally blow the cover of the government's version of the Oklahoma City bombing. The McVeigh-as-lone-mastermind theory was certainly useful in securing a conviction and death sentence against McVeigh -- something that was far from a foregone conclusion at the time of his trial. But that does not mean the government necessarily believes that it is the whole truth; the involvement of McVeigh and Nichols may, rather, have been all that the feds were in a position to prove beyond a reasonable doubt.

Several things about the lone-mastermind theory have never mind sense. The official version does not explain how McVeigh and Nichols could have successfully built the huge fertilizer bomb on their own without any explosives training. (Guthrie, by contrast, had received weapons instruction when he was training, unsuccessfully, to be a Navy SEAL.) It stretches credulity by suggesting that McVeigh drove the fully primed bomb more than 300 miles from Kansas to Oklahoma City -- something that ordnance experts say would have carried a high probability of premature detonation. (An alternative theory holds that McVeigh and his accomplices assembled the bomb in Oklahoma City on the morning of the attack.) It cannot explain how every single eyewitness who saw McVeigh as he made his final preparations for the attack saw him with someone else (and not Terry Nichols, either). And it does not account for the financing of the operation: McVeigh was jobless and broke from 1992 on, and yet he spent months shortly before the bombing frantically crisscrossing the country, staying in motels and making several sizable purchases. He paid cash for everything.

If McVeigh did have accomplices, then one place he might have found them was a white supremacist religious compound in rural Oklahoma called Elohim City. The feds were deeply suspicious of Elohim City, seeing it in the early spring of 1995 as potentially another Waco. Its residents included the notorious White Aryan Resistance leader Dennis Mahon, a shady German called Andreas Strassmeir and an occasional ARA member called Michael Brescia. Its visitors included other ARA members and McVeigh, going under the pseudonym Tim Tuttle.

It later emerged that Mahon's girlfriend, Carol Howe, was an informant for the ATF, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. She was the one who heard plans being hatched -- by Mahon and Strassmeir -- to blow up a government building, accompanied Elohim City residents on one of three reconnaissance trips to Oklahoma City, and reported seeing McVeigh on the premises. We also know, from evidence that emerged during the pretrial discovery process, that McVeigh called Elohim City two weeks before the bombing and asked to speak to Strassmeir.

The January 1996 FBI teletype made public by Jesse Trentadue adds two intriguing details to this. One is that McVeigh, when he made his phone call, "was believed to have been attempting to recruit a second conspirator to assist in the OKBOMB attack." And the other is that there was a second informant at Elohim City, working on behalf of the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Alabama-based civil rights organization whose lead lawyer, Morris Dees, has been the scourge of racists and neo-Nazis from one end of the country to the other.

The teletype says the Southern Poverty Law Center informant was at Elohim City two days before the bombing when someone -- the name is redacted -- put in a phone call to the compound. If true, this is an incendiary revelation, because it suggests that the center knew far more about the Oklahoma City bombing than it let on in its immediate aftermath. In an e-mail he wrote to Jesse Trentadue in January 2005, Mark Potok, who edits the center's Intelligence Report, flatly denied that the SPLC had an informant, "or anyone else," at Elohim City. Two years earlier, however, Morris Dees, when asked at a meeting at Southeastern Oklahoma State University whether his organization had had any inside source at Elohim City, made no such denial. Rather, he dodged the question, acknowledging that his organization worked closely with the FBI and other federal agencies but omitting any precise details.

"We did notify the FBI and Janet Reno six months before the Oklahoma bombing that we had strong information that there was going to be a serious domestic terrorism strike," Dees added. "Within minutes after it [the Murrah Building bombing] hit the news … we called the criminal division of the FBI and said 'quit looking at Muslim businessmen who visit Oklahoma, you got to be looking at people involved in this Patriot movement.' "

We still have no clear idea of who knew what about the bombing, when they learned it, what attempts, if any, were made to prevent the calamity and why any such efforts failed. What we do know, however, is that the government had a lot more information than it was willing to admit publicly -- or even to turn over to the defense teams in the various bombing trials that have taken place since 1997.

One trove of hitherto unseen FBI documents cropped up on the eve of Timothy McVeigh's execution in 2001, delaying his death at the federal death row facility in Terre Haute, Ind., by almost a month. More were leaked to John Solomon, a Washington-based Associated Press reporter, in 2004 -- including a Secret Service file containing the extraordinary revelation that government agents had access to security videotapes of the Murrah Building in which "the suspects" (more than one) are seen exiting the Ryder truck containing the bomb three minutes before the explosion.

When Terry Nichols was retried on state murder charges in Oklahoma that same year -- in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt by prosecutors to get him sentenced to death -- the defense team tried to use the Solomon documents as exculpatory evidence for their client on the basis that the more others were involved, the less significant Nichols' own role would appear to have been. They also made a passionate case that Nichols had been denied a fair trial because the FBI and other agencies had improperly concealed relevant evidence.

The judge in the Oklahoma case, Steven Taylor, refused to grant them satisfaction on that front, saying he simply did not believe the official documents stating that the government had access to security video footage of the Murrah Building. As for any link to the ARA bank robbery gang, he called it a "dry hole." "There is absolutely no evidence of any overt act by the bank robbers in bombing the Murrah Building," Judge Taylor insisted, "nothing at all to link the bank robbers to the crime that is being tried before this court."

That, though, was before Jesse Trentadue came forward with his own stash of official documents. Trentadue is an undeniably colorful character, filling his legal briefs with trenchant statements about the federal government's iniquities and writing taunting e-mails to Robert Mueller, the FBI director, and others whenever he feels he has won a little victory over them. Last May, when Judge Kimball issued a ruling ordering the FBI to produce every document Trentadue had requested, the subject line of his e-mail to Mueller read: OH MY GOSH DARN BIGGEST FRIGGIN' HECK!!! "After you read [the judge's] order," he wrote, "you are going to need a case of Preparation H!"

If Trentadue is unorthodox in his approach, he is nevertheless effective. In 2001, he secured $1.1 million in damages from the Justice Department for the emotional distress his family suffered over his brother's suspicious death. That judgment has since been upheld on appeal, although the amount is still being litigated. Over the past year, his assault on the FBI has been equally dogged. When he first made a request for a copy of the January 1996 teletype, the FBI told him it did not exist. When he followed up that request with his own redacted copy of the teletype, along with a declaration from a former FBI special agent giving very specific information on where it was likely to be filed based on information on the teletype itself, the FBI said it had conducted a computer search for the terms Trentadue had requested and come up empty. Such a search, the FBI contended, was all that was required of the agency under the Freedom of Information Act.

Judge Kimball vigorously disagreed. "The court finds that the FBI's search was not reasonably calculated to discovery [sic] the requested documents," he wrote in his order last May. The FBI then announced it had 340 relevant documents in its possession and promised to release them all as ordered. When push came to shove, however, the number of documents it actually produced near the end of July was just 25; all were so heavily redacted that in places whole paragraphs were whited out and no significant new information could be gleaned from any of them. "The 340 number," the FBI explained, "… included numerous multiple matches that actually identified the same document." Oddly, the batch of 25 documents itself contained multiple versions of the same files; once the duplicates and draft versions were removed, the number of new documents numbered just 17.

Once again, Judge Kimball was unimpressed and ordered the FBI to give him unredacted copies of everything to examine in camera so he could decide for himself whether there was any valid reason to keep the redacted parts secret. At first the FBI resisted vigorously, going so far as to announce the day after Kimball's new order that it had reopened the Oklahoma City bombing investigation and that it was therefore no longer obliged to respond to any related FOIA request. In the end, though, the FBI produced the documents as ordered, and Kimball conducted his examination of them behind closed doors last November. His decision on their publication is still pending.

The full lessons from all this remain to be learned, in part because we are very far from getting to the bottom of the mystery. But it's clear that the intelligence failures and institutional coverups we have seen in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks and the Iraq war are part of a historical pattern. The FBI, in common with other federal agencies, is interested in defending its own bureaucratic interests first and establishing the truth only a distant second. It is prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to avoid having to admit mistakes, even if that means allowing people suspected of posing a significant threat to public safety to go free. Dennis Mahon, who is banned from travel to Britain and other countries because of his political activities, has never been seriously troubled by the Oklahoma City bomb investigators. Andreas Strassmeir was allowed to leave the United States and return to Germany in early 1996 even though it was clear at the time that he had had contact with McVeigh immediately before the bombing and might, at the very least, have made an important witness. Several of the ARA bank robbers, meanwhile, have completed their sentences and are now free.

Even if the FBI has valid reasons for thinking that a broader prosecution of McVeigh's accomplices could not stand up in court -- because the evidence is lacking, or because the case might have to be built on the testimony of neo-Nazis and convicted bank robbers -- there is no excuse not to be more forthcoming about what the agency knows, and never mind whose pride gets hurt in the process. America deserves to be told everything possible about the Oklahoma City bombing, just as it deserves to be told everything about 9/11. That includes the full factual record of the crime itself, the conduct of the investigation, the leads that could not be solidified and, yes, the false trails and the screw-ups. In an ideal world, Congress or the FBI itself would be the guarantor of full disclosure. As it is, we have to rely on dogged individuals like Jesse Trentadue to squeeze the information out drop by drop.

DIY Disaster Relief

Don’t let anybody kid you. The government response to Hurricane Katrina was not only a disaster when the storm first hit. It’s still a disaster now.

I’ve been talking to medical professionals who have been to the Gulf Coast in the past couple of weeks, and this is what they have told me.

First, FEMA continues to be next to useless. It is not providing relief workers with the access they need to areas crying out for their help. It is not keeping up with bills for the emergency work it has authorized so far. A shockingly large number of doctors and nurses are being told that their services are not needed. Those with the guts and the initiative to go ahead regardless are finding that the exact opposite is true –- thousands upon thousands of storm evacuees who have run out of their prescription medications, or require new prescriptions, or need help with a panoply of storm-induced problems, from simple cuts and bruises to infections and depression and suicidal feelings.

Secondly, FEMA and the Red Cross are not talking to each other to sort it all out. At the Cajundome in Lafayette, Louisiana –- home to more than 5,000 evacuees –- there was, as of a few days ago, no formal on-site medical care. That meant people had the unenviable choice of going to the emergency room of a Lafayette hospital, waiting in line for hours and hoping for the best, or somehow fending for themselves.

Thirdly, the failures of the first six weeks or so since Katrina struck are likely only to compound the problems down the road. Sanitation in the shelters is a nightmare. Some professionals don’t exclude outbreaks of tuberculosis or other diseases one might have associated, pre-Katrina, with an earlier, more backward era.

Don’t take it from me. Here’s Paula Criscenzo, a Californian nurse, who recently traveled to the Gulf with her sister, an internist, and committed her impressions of the Cajundome to paper:

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A Country on the Verge of an Electoral Meltdown

No need to wonder if this year's U.S. presidential election is headed for another meltdown: the meltdown has already started. The voting machines have already begun to break down, accusations of systematic voter suppression and fraud are rampant, and lawyers fully armed and ready with an intimate knowledge of the nation's byzantine election laws have flocked to court to cry foul in half a dozen states.

Nine days out from election day, we don't yet know whether the state-by-state arithmetic will lead to a post-election stalemate similar to the 36-day battle for Florida in 2000. It is, of course, possible that the margins of victory in the 50 states will be wide enough to avert the worst – even if overall conditions are likely to fall short of the usual definition of a free and fair election.

Given the nail-bitingly close numbers in the opinion polls, however, election 2004 could just as easily produce a concatenation of knockdown, drag-out fights in several states at once, making the debacle in Florida four years ago look, in retrospect, like the constitutional equivalent of a vicarage tea party.

Last week saw the start of early voting in Florida and a clutch of other states, and with it came a plethora of problems. In three heavily populated counties – around Tampa, Orlando and Fort Lauderdale – the network connection used to verify voter identifications broke down on the first day, creating hours of delay. In Jacksonville, where poor ballot design in 2000 knocked out the votes of 27,000 poor, predominantly black, predominantly Democratic voters, the county elections supervisor chose the first day of polling to resign, citing ill health. He had come under fire for failing to make early voting available in the city's African American neighborhoods – something his interim successor is now going some way to remedy.

Elsewhere, there were computer breakdowns during early voting in Memphis. Pre-election testing of electronic machines in Riverside County, Calif., and in Palm Beach County, Fla., led to multiple computer crashes. Elsewhere, machines have manifested problems handling basic addition – especially when asked to display instructions in a language other than English. Several county administrators have chosen simply to skip the non-English language part of the test.

In Nebraska, dead people were found to have applied for absentee ballots. In Ohio, a representative of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was found to have offered crack cocaine to a known drug addict in exchange for completed voter registration forms, which he duly submitted in the names of Mary Poppins, Janet Jackson and Jeffrey Dahmer, the notorious cannibal serial killer.

This is just the beginning. The Kerry campaign alone has signed up 10,000 lawyers around the country to oversee registration and absentee ballot procedures, keep tabs on computer voting companies, collect stories of alleged disenfranchisement or irregularities at the polls, and watch state elections officials with hawk-eyed attention for every ruling that might be construed as having a partisan, rather than a public interest intent.

"The lawyering won't start the day after the election," said Kendall Coffey, a Democratic Party lawyer in Miami who was deeply involved in the 2000 fiasco. "It's already under way." Florida Congressman Robert Wexler, who is deep in litigation with his state government over the failure of Florida's electronic voting machines to produce an independent paper trail, concurred. "The dangers are limitless," he said. "They are limited only by the inventiveness of those who would tamper with the system and create havoc."

It beggars belief that the world's most powerful democracy should find itself in this hole for the second time in a row – becoming an object of international ridicule, scorn and not a little alarm, even as the country's leaders talk idealistically about exporting American freedom and democracy to Afghanistan, Iraq and beyond.

After the last fiasco everyone from President Bush down vowed to fix the system and ensure another Florida could never happen. But three big things went wrong. First, the new generation of computer touchscreen machines – brought in at dizzying speed and at even more dizzying cost to replace the discredited old punch-cards – turned out to be poorly programmed, unverifiable, prone to all manner of failure and susceptible to undetectable foul play.

Secondly, the Bush administration dragged its feet about enacting funding its own new election laws. As a result, most states won't have their electoral procedures fully updated and coordinated until the next presidential election in 2008. That, in turn, is opening up furious arguments about the ill-defined rules for provisional ballots, absentee ballots, ID card requirements at polling stations and other seemingly esoteric bureaucratic niceties that could have a huge impact on turnout – especially among the poorer, less educated classes who have traditionally been ignored, if not excluded, by the two major parties.

Thirdly, the political leadership allowed itself to be deluded into thinking that the dysfunctions of the U.S. electoral system were purely a matter of technology. Fix the machines, the thinking went, and everything else will be fine. What should have been glaringly obvious in 2000, and is even more glaringly obvious now, is that the failures of the electoral process were a direct result of the ferocity of broader political battles. The blithe incompetence of local election officials and their wonky machinery were side-effects of these battles, not the cause.

In 2000, much of the agony of Florida could in fact have been avoided if the parties had agreed to a state-wide manual recount – as happened in an equally close, but amicably resolved, Senate race in Washington state that year. It was the high stakes of the White House, not the messy accumulation of hanging, dimpled and pregnant chads, that sparked the crisis. And we know the stakes are infinitely higher this time, in what has been called the most important U.S. election in memory.

There has been nothing to match the current passions in American politics since the Civil Rights era and the Vietnam War. Campaigns have never been dirtier, or more intensely fought or more expensive. Both major parties have vowed to do whatever it takes to win, and each has accused the other of engaging in out-and-out cheating.

The whole country – never mind the woefully inadequate electoral system – is now living on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Little wonder, then, if many are predicting some sort of collapse on Nov. 2. "Only a miracle, it strikes me, can prevent this election from descending into post-election chaos," John Dean, the Watergate-era White House counsel who knows a thing or two about electoral dirty tricks, wrote last week.

What has been striking is the sheer nastiness of the fight. In Oregon, Pennsylvania and Nevada – all swing states – a Republican political consulting group called Sproul & Associates has been accused of passing itself off as a non-partisan or even a Democratic civic organization to collect voter registration applications outside libraries and supermarkets. In at least two instances now under criminal investigation, company employees have been accused of processing the applications of declared Republican voters while throwing the forms marked Democrat into the nearest rubbish bin. Sproul, which has received more than $600,000 (£330,000) from the Republican National Committee, has denied ever endorsing such practices. Still, the discarded voter registration forms have been paraded on television for all to see.

In Ohio and Florida, it is the Republican secretaries of state – who oversee elections – who have been accused of putting partisan preference above their solemn civic duties. Ohio's Ken Blackwell won points from voting rights activists earlier in the year when he chose not to go ahead with a massive statewide buy of electronic voting machines. Since then, however, he has tried to insist that all voter registration forms be submitted on 80 pound stock paper – a ruling struck down by the courts after he was accused of blatantly attempting to suppress the votes of likely Democrats.

He has also tried to make life harder for provisional voters, saying their ballots will be recognized only if they show up at exactly the right precinct. This too was struck down in court because it was deemed likely to suppress votes – especially among transient students and low-income workers. But Secretary Blackwell has continued to implement the policy in defiance of the court order, prompting a harsh rebuke from the judge.

In Florida, Secretary of State Glenda Hood has been repeatedly accused of doing the political bidding of the man who appointed her – Gov. Jeb Bush, the president's brother. Her more recent exploits include directing county supervisors to throw out registration forms where applicants have signed a statement declaring they are U.S. citizens but have forgotten to check a citizenry box elsewhere on the form. This, too, is seen as a vote-suppressing mechanism. It, too, is now in the courts.

Secretary Hood has also been waging a months-long campaign to ban what limited manual recounts the electronic voting machines permit. Her initial ruling was struck down by the courts, but now she has come up with a staggeringly devious rewrite. The state will now permit analysis of the computerized machines' internal audit logs in the event of a close race, she said, but if there is any discrepancy the county supervisors are to go with the original count. In other words: we will do recounts, but if the recounts change the outcome we will disregard them.

Secretary Hood's actions illuminate the real attraction of the electronic voting machines in the states where they have been introduced. They may work no better than the old punch-card machines – studies suggest they fail to record as many votes as their predecessors. In the absence of an independent paper trail, however, all evidence of problems is hidden away in the binary code of an electronic black box and is, to all intents and purposes, invisible.

This raises intriguing and troubling questions about what a post-election contest might look like. One can reasonably anticipate – based on past experience – an avalanche of stories about voters turned away from polling stations, told they are on a felons list even if they have no criminal record, or kept waiting for hours because of technical glitches. No doubt people will tell some of those thousands of lawyers how they pressed the screen for one candidate, only to have the other's name light up.

The problem is, even if lawyers for the losing candidate are able to prove that the system failed, they will find it very difficult to talk specific numbers and demonstrate that enough votes were lost to alter the outcome.

How the courts will react to this hypothetical state of affairs is anybody's guess. They could accept the given election results, however flawed. They could allow the arguments to rage until December, when the electoral college is supposed to meet, or even into the new year, when an undecided election would be thrown into the House of Representatives.

Or they could be trumped, once again, by the Supreme Court. The most disconcerting possibility is that the highest court in the land could remove the electoral process from the voters altogether and turn it over to the state legislatures. Technically, they can do this under Article II of the Constitution, which offers no automatic right to vote. We know from the deliberations in 2000 that two, possibly five, of the nine justices have doubts whether the people should be the ultimate arbiters of presidential elections – a strict, literal reading of the Constitution that no modern Supreme Court countenanced before the current crop of ultra-conservatives. "After granting the franchise in the special context of Article II," the majority declared in its Bush v. Gore ruling, "[the state] can take back the power to appoint electors."

Were this scenario to play out it would leave the fate of many of the electoral battlegrounds in the hands of Republican-controlled state legislatures (in Florida and Ohio, for starters), who would promptly hand the election to George Bush. Talk about a nightmare scenario – which is why every elections official and every "small d" democrat in the land is praying it won't get that close.

Something Rotten in the State of Florida

Of the many weird and unsettling developments in Florida since the presidential election meltdown four years ago, none is so startling as the fact that Theresa LePore, the calamitously incompetent elections supervisor of Palm Beach County, still has her job. It was LePore who chose the notorious "butterfly ballot" – a format so confusing that it led thousands of Democrats, many of them elderly, retired Jewish people, to punch the wrong hole, giving their vote not to Al Gore, as they had intended, but to the right-wing, explicitly anti-Jewish fringe candidate Pat Buchanan.

It was LePore, too, who caused huge problems for the fraught re-count process, first by insisting on the strictest standards for determining voter intent and then, with the final deadline 72 hours away, ordering her staff to take the day off for Thanksgiving. As a result, Palm Beach County fell short of completing its manual re-count on time, and the whole process – which even under LePore's strictures had turned up an extra 180 votes for Gore – was rendered void.

Arguably, no one person did more to foul up the maddeningly close election in Florida in 2000, and no individual bears more responsibility for the fact that George Bush ended up President instead of Gore. (Without the butterfly ballot, Gore would have taken as many as 7,000 more votes and cruised past Bush's official 537-vote margin of victory.) Yet Theresa LePore will still be in charge for this November's presidential election – and things have got considerably worse in the interim.

Palm Beach isn't the only place in Florida where crazy things have happened. Officials up and down the state have behaved like drunks caught out on one bender too many. They have talked the talk of reform quite convincingly, and even lavished considerable expense on covering up their past lapses. But the bottom line is that the voting machines still don't work, political corruption and underhand campaign tactics remain rampant, and too many black and lower-income voters face daunting, often insurmountable obstacles in exercising their voting rights.

In a state that promises to be every bit as pivotal as it was last time, this is deeply worrying. And Palm Beach County shows why. After the 2000 débâcle, an unrepentant Theresa LePore was told by the state of Florida that she and her fellow election supervisors would have to replace the punchcard machines that had exposed the state to such ridicule. She flew to California, where she was quickly seduced by an electronic touchscreen voting system used in Riverside County, just east of Los Angeles.

She was told that Riverside's system had performed flawlessly in November 2000, even as she and her canvassing board had been hung up for weeks examining punchcards for dimpled, hanging or pregnant chads. But Riverside's tabulation system had in fact suffered meltdown on election night, creating the first of many controversies about the reliability and accuracy of its Sequoia Pacific machines.

Blissfully unaware of this, LePore spent $14.4m on her own Sequoia system and unveiled it for local elections in March 2002. It seems to have fallen at the first hurdle. A former mayor of Boca Raton, Emil Danciu, was flabbergasted to finish third in a race for a seat on Boca Raton city council. A poll shortly before the election had put him 17 points ahead of his nearest rival.

Supporters told his campaign office that when they tried to touch the screen to light up his name, the machine registered the name of an opponent. Danciu also found that 15 cartridges containing the vote totals from machines in his home precinct had disappeared on election night, delaying the result. It transpired that an election worker had taken them home, in violation of the most basic procedures. Danciu's lawyer, his daughter Charlotte, said some cartridges were then found to be empty, for reasons that have never been adequately explained.

Danciu sued for access to the Sequoia source code to see if it was flawed. He was told that the source code was considered a trade secret under Florida law, and that even LePore and her staff were not authorised to examine it, on pain of criminal prosecution. His suit was thrown out.

Two weeks later, something even stranger happened. In the town of Wellington, a run-off election for mayor was decided by just four votes – but 78 votes did not register on the machines at all. This meant – assuming for a moment that the machines were not lying – that 78 people had driven to the polls, not voted, and gone home again.

The scenario beggared belief, but it was touted, with a straight face, by LePore. Then and since, she has refused to acknowledge even the slightest flaw in the voting machines, and has resisted with all her might a growing clamour for a voter-verifiable paper trail as a back-up. "She's defended the system almost to the point where it's been ridiculous," Charlotte Danciu said. "She treated us as though we were sore losers, andas though we were imbeciles. The tenor of what she told us was that if people were too dumb to vote on electronic machines, they shouldn't be voting."

More phantom non-voters showed up in an election in Palm Beach County in January. Again, those supposedly present but not voting (137 people) greatly exceeded the margin of victory (12 votes). That persuaded a local Democrat Congressman, Robert Wexler, to sue LePore and the state of Florida to force them to adopt a paper trail. The case is pending.

Wexler went further, sponsoring a professor, Arthur Anderson, to challenge LePore for her job, putting up $90,000 of his own campaign money. The election got very strange, not least because it took on heavily partisan overtones. LePore, a registered Independent, was championed by the Republican Party as a much-maligned asset to Floridian democracy (a coded way of thanking her for her role in sending George Bush to the White House). Anderson had prominent Democrats stumping for him.

Any pretence of objective fairness was lost as each side accused the other of promoting a candidate intent on putting party before the electoral process. It was certainly odd that LePore was organising an election in which she was a prominent candidate. It was odder still when, on the August polling day, sheriff's deputies arrived at the supervisor's office and surrounded the building with squad cars and "do not cross" barriers. Such police presence at election sites is technically illegal.

The sheriff's department cited a possible terrorist threat and, according to a TV station, drew a parallel with the Madrid train bombings. The source of this threat was never identified, and the cordoning off of the supervisor's office – which was doubling as a polling station and collection point for hand-delivered absentee ballots – looked even more suspicious because a contentious sheriff's race was also conducted that day.

Sarah "Echo" Steiner, a member of the Palm Beach Coalition for Election Reform, said the place looked "like a crime scene" when she dropped off her absentee ballot. It took her a while to find the lone unmarked entrance at the back where the public could still go in, and she was worried that the police presence was a ploy to try to suppress Anderson's absentee vote count (which, given his supporters' mistrust of the electronic machines, was expected to be high).

LePore's handling of the absentee ballots was controversial from start to finish. Her design for the ballot required voters to fill in a broken arrow linking the name of the office to the candidate – a system widely expected to cause mayhem, which it duly did. She also took the unusual step of having the voter's party affiliation printed on the return envelope, opening the door for mischief by a corrupt poll-worker or mail-carrier. No other county does this.

Anderson won the election, but only just – by 51 per cent to 49. Election reformers were relieved, but suspicious. "We're talking about one of the most hated politicians in the country, and she almost wins?" said an incredulous Susan Van Houten, who chairs the voting reform coalition. "Those numbers: I just don't trust them any more."

But Palm Beach County will have to trust Theresa LePore in the presidential election, as she does not leave office until January. She believes she has been victimised and refuses to acknowledge any serious wrongdoing, much less apologise. "It's just amazing that you can do everything right for 30-plus years, and you have one, albeit not small, incident [the 2000 butterfly ballot], and you're crucified for it for ever," she said.

Arthur Anderson, who has yet to hear from LePore despite sending her flowers after the election, said: "She is just not recognizing the level of mistrust among the voters. Much of it was entirely avoidable."

The 2000 election in Florida represented a huge conflict of interest, as the state Governor, Jeb Bush, was the brother of the Republican presidential nominee, and the person in charge of conducting the election, the Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, was doubling as George Bush's campaign co-chair. The conflict has persisted, in one form or another, over the past four years. The Republican Party finds itself in an unusual position in Florida: although voter registration slightly favours the Democrats, the Republicans have managed to engineer the demographics - through the gerrymandering of electoral districts - so that they have a lock on both houses of the state legislature and the Governor's office. They control almost all the machinery of government, including, in large part, the management of elections.

While they may have paid lip service to electoral reform after the 2000 fiasco, clearly their party interest lay in continuing to suppress Democratic votes while maximising the access of their own supporters. The Republicans did all they could to avoid manual re-counts in 2000 because they assumed that the more votes were re-counted in south Florida, the more they would favour Al Gore.

The same principle applies now. The Republicans can only be thrilled that those southern counties have opted for electronic voting machines, without an independent paper trail, because they make meaningful re-counts essentially impossible. There have even been efforts - by the Florida legislature, and by the new Secretary of State, Glenda Hood - to make re-counts on electronic machines illegal. Only the intervention of the courts, relying on a Florida statute calling for the possibility of manual re-counts, has forestalled them - so far.

The Republican lock on power helps to explain why Florida ignored the key recommendations of a task force on electoral reform set up by Governor Bush after the 2000 election. The group urged the Secretary of State's office to certify a uniform voting system for all 67 counties. It also concluded that optically scanned paper ballots were the most secure, accurate system available: electronic voting was promising, but was not yet ready for prime time.

That was when a living, breathing conflict of interest came along in the shape of Sandra Mortham, a Republican former Secretary of State now working as a lobbyist for Election Systems & Software, makers of the notorious chad-producing Votomatic punchcard machines. ES&S was developing an electronic touchscreen machine called the iVotronic, and was very keen to sell it while memories of the 2000 election were fresh. Mortham had all the right contacts, not only because of her previous job but because she was also a lobbyist for the Florida Association of Counties.

The upshot? The iVotronic was sold to 12 of the state's largest counties, including Miami-Dade and its immediate northern neighbor Broward. ES&S paid a percentage of its profits to the FAC, as well as a commission fee to Mortham. (Most of Florida's mainly Republican rural counties went with a much cheaper optical scan system, as the task force recommended.)

The county elections supervisors who went for the iVotronic – many of them Democrats – fell in love with the idea of dispensing with paper ballots and leaving all the work of vote-counting to a computer. The lack of a paper trail struck many of them as a blessing, not a setback, as they regarded re-counts as an irksome addition to their workload and a slight to their professionalism.

Unfortunately, the officials never asked the hard questions about the systems they were buying, with calamitous results. ES&S had promised Miami-Dade it could add a third language, Creole, to its touchscreen software (built for English and Spanish), but omitted to mention that the trilingual package would be loaded via a dedicated flashcard, and would drastically slow down each machine. When the iVotronics debuted in September 2002, they took so long to boot up that the entire Miami-Dade electoral machinery ground to a halt.

To make matters worse, freak storms knocked out power to certain polling stations for so long that the battery back-ups on many iVotronics ran out. The tabulation machines then went bananas. One Miami precinct reported a 900 per cent turnout; another showed just one ballot cast out of 1,637 registered voters. "It turned out that the county had purchased a prototype," said Lida Rodriguez-Taseff, who heads the Miami-Dade Electoral Reform Coalition. "This was an invention that had never been tested. We were the guinea pigs."

For the next election, that November, officials decided to turn on the machines the night before. Because of the obvious security risks, the city had police patrols roaming the streets and guarding precincts all night, at huge cost. There wasn't much choice: as the Center for Democracy, a non-partisan group monitoring the election, discovered, it took as long as 70 minutes to fire up each machine, and the system was set up so that they had to be turned on one after the other, in sequence. Most polling stations took up to five hours to get ready.

And that is how Miami-Dade will operate in November. ES&S updated its software, but failed to reduce the boot-up time by much. "The emergency procedure has become the norm," Rodriguez-Taseff said. Apart from the security risk of leaving the machines on all night, it turns out that a software quirk makes it impossible to detect whether they have been tampered with.

That's not all: when the head of the county technology department tested the internal audit trail in the computers (the mechanism that electronic voting advocates say provides sufficient back-up for a re-count), he found key data scrambled, creating discrepancies in the secondary vote totals. "I believe there is a serious 'bug' in the programs that generate these reports, making the reports unusable," the technician, Orlando Suarez, wrote to the county elections supervisor in June 2003.

Several state officials, who have continued to trumpet the virtues of the ES&S machines, denied knowledge of Suarez's letter until this summer, at which point one of them, the head of the state division of elections, abruptly resigned. Members of the Miami-Dade coalition believe that one reason Glenda Hood wants to outlaw manual re-counts on electronic voting machines is because she knows they are impossible to do on the ES&S machines, but would rather not say so up front.

Glenda Hood has become a particular object of attack in the campaign to hold Florida accountable for its voting practices. Unlike her predecessor, Katherine Harris, who was at least nominally independent because she was elected to the post of Secretary of State, Hood is a direct gubernatorial appointment. In the words of Congressman Wexler, a particularly ardent critic: "She is the political mouthpiece of Jeb Bush, a true partisan using her office to the best possible advantage of the Republican Party. She is the mechanism Jeb and George Bush have employed to do everything in their power to make Florida a Bush state."

When a Florida court ruled that Ralph Nader – seen as a possible spoiler for John Kerry's chances in the Sunshine State – was not entitled to a place on the ballot, Hood wrote to the 67 elections supervisors and instructed them to include him anyway. (She was subsequently vindicated by the Florida Supreme Court.)

More egregiously – certainly in terms of protecting voting rights – Hood tried earlier in the year to revive a statewide purge list of suspected felons and ex-felons, ostensibly to clean up outdated voter rolls. The list, first dreamed up by Sandra Mortham when she was Secretary of State, disproportionately affects black voters, who vote Democrat by a nine-to-one margin. The list was discredited after 2000 because it was found to be riddled with errors, leading to unknown thousands of cases of wrongful disenfranchisement, many of which have not been corrected.

The state fought to keep this year's list secret, only to have it forced into the open by court order. Sure enough, the list – prepared by the consultancy firm Accenture, which has contributed $25,000 to Republican candidates in Florida – turned out to be top-heavy with black voters (including about 2,000 people who had had their voting rights restored), and it included several people who could demonstrate that they had no criminal record at all. Most startlingly, the list of 48,000 included only 61 Hispanic names – way out of line with the strength of both the general Hispanic population and the prison population of Hispanic people. It's probably no coincidence that Hispanics in Florida – especially Cuban exiles – tend to vote Republican.

Hood was sufficiently embarrassed to drop the list, but the furor focused attention on another glaring injustice in Florida politics: the fact that prisoners have no automatic restoration of voting rights once they have served their time. Florida is one of just seven states that disenfranchise ex-felons in this way, and it is by far the largest. The American Civil Liberties Union estimates that about 600,000 people in Florida are denied their voting rights because of their criminal history, including one in three black men.

Former felons can apply for restoration of their voting rights by executive clemency, but the process is tortuously long, requires them to waive the privacy of their medical and financial histories, and has no guaranteed outcome. Governor Bush himself hears a few dozen cases in hearings held four times a year. Given the political benefit of keeping most of these ex-felons off the rolls, it's no surprise that he takes his sweet time. The backlog of applicants is tens of thousands.

Florida has had felon disenfranchisement laws on its books since 1868, when slavery had just been abolished and the white elite, humiliated by the Civil War, was looking for other means to deny blacks their rights. It is hard, even now, not to see a deliberately discriminatory pattern in the law. As Courtenay Strickland of the ACLU Voting Rights Project put it: "Florida is creating degrees of citizenship. When you start doing that, you're creating something that begins to look not quite like a democracy."

That sentiment resonates in Miami's Little Haiti, home to roughly half the one million Haitians in the United States. Pro-John Kerry voting-rights groups have been working the area in force ahead of the 4 October registration deadline, but they have found a population almost completely disillusioned with the electoral process. "They have got it in their minds that Bush will steal the election again," said Rosa Assinthe, a Haitian-American who has been on a registration drive for the Service Employees International Union since April.

Organisers are finding that at least 20 per cent of people who register to vote through their local Department of Motor Vehicles (the agency that issues driving licences) are not receiving voter cards in the mail. People can still vote without a voter card, but only at the correct polling station. The only sure way of finding out which station to go to - and they change from election to election, as do the addresses of lower-income voters and recent immigrants - is to telephone the county elections department. That line is often busy.

Other bureaucratic games appear to be going on. Edeline Clermont, a member of the Haitian American Grassroots Coalition, said she knew of several cases where voters – herself included – received new voter cards in the mail without prompting, only to discover that the party registration had been surreptitiously changed from Democrat to either Republican or Independent. When Clermont went to vote in the August primaries, she was turned away at first because, she was told, she was not listed as a Democrat. "I told them, you'll have to call the police and arrest me, because I'm not leaving this place until I've voted," she said. The polling station officials relented and let her vote by provisional ballot.

Miami's Haitians are particularly suspicious about the way their voting rights are regarded compared with those of the Cuban Republicans living in Little Havana. They are convinced that the Cubans are furiously registering non-citizens and filling in absentee ballots for dead people, and are being allowed to get away with it. The fear among the Haitians, meanwhile, is that if they break the rules in similar ways, they will be caught and punished.

Some of their suspicions are no doubt well grounded. There is a long history of voter fraud in Miami, especially among the Cubans. A Cuban exile columnist reported recently that absentee ballots were being sold on Calle Ocho in Miami for $25 a pop.

The fact is, though, that disreputable elements are almost certainly signing up non-citizens on both sides, and there's every chance that a large number will have their votes recorded. (The zeal with which ex-felons are tracked does not extend to non-citizens.) More underhand tactics are in operation: the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People learnt that a large number of voter registration forms collected from black citizens had been dumped in a garbage can - apparently the work of a pro-Republican operative who wanted to con them into thinking that they had completed their paperwork.

Absentee ballots, meanwhile, are in a class of their own, especially as the Florida legislature – with bipartisan support – recently abolished the last meaningful impediment to absentee fraud by eliminating the requirement for a witness signature on applications. It used to be that witness signatures could be tracked to spot "brokers" – middlemen who signed up dozens or even hundreds of absentee voters. The signatures could be checked by handwriting experts. No longer. "The floodgates are open for absentee-ballot abuse to an unprecedented degree," predicted Kendall Coffey, a Democratic Party lawyer who once won a case overturning an election in Miami thanks to broker signature-tracking.

In Little Haiti, vote organiser Carline Paul explained how the system might work now. "There is a bar code on the absentee ballot that can be checked against the registration application. So they can make sure a voter is registered. But they can't check whether he or she is dead. All the Cubans need to do is to sign up everyone over 70, whether they are in a nursing home or in the next world, and they can steal this election."

Every elections supervisor in Florida has been praying for months that the November election won't be close. But what if it is? The only certainty, as Congressman Wexler said, is that "both Bush and Kerry lawyers will be in several courts on election night." Thousands of attorneys are at the ready and – unlike last time – they have their strategies and case books ready to go.

But what will they argue about? If electronic voting machines are the issue, they will be hard put to request re-counts, as re-counts will be meaningless. They will have 72 hours from the close of polling – before absentee, provisional and overseas votes have been fully counted – to mount formal challenges, and that means sorting through an anticipated avalanche of testimonials and allegations to map a coherent legal strategy.

It could be that there will be nothing to argue about, as the physical evidence of vote-tampering (paper ballots and fraudulent signatures) have become so much rarer. Or it could be that the election is taken out of the hands of the people altogether – on the grounds that the results are unreliable – and decided, once again, in the Supreme Court. The problem, Lida Rodriguez-Taseff said, is this: "We have thrown millions of dollars at correcting the outward signs of problems, without correcting the problems themselves."

Some people believe the best strategy is to keep fighting. There are high hopes of introducing a voter-verified paper trail before the 2008 presidential election, and there are signs that a grassroots movement to restore ex-felons' voting rights is finding support beyond Florida's boundaries.

"We're trying not to get bogged down in negatives," said Monica Russo, a state co-ordinator for the service workers' union. "If you do that, everyone will slit their wrists. We're union workers - we're used to having the deck stacked against us. It's about helping people to get through the process."

The mess that is Florida nevertheless came as a profound shock to a group of international election monitors who toured the state last week. Dr Brigalia Bam, who chairs South Africa's Independent Electoral Commission, was stunned by the patchwork of jurisdictions, rules and anomalies. "Absolutely everything is a violation," she said. "All these different systems in different counties with no accountability... It's like the poorest village in Africa." November could be another agonizingly long month in American politics.

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