Both personality and issues will affect who is elected president in 2004. Most agree George W. Bush’s personality and John Kerry’s issues are most appealing. Both are focused on getting votes — however, there may actually be something more fundamental.

What may actually be central in this campaign is the foundation upon which our democracy, the candidates’ personalities and all the issues rest — the vote.

After the election debacle of 2000, most Americans thought Congress had basically fixed our voting system when it passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) and provided over $2 billion to implement it. Now it appears the 2004 election may be worse than 2000.

The president gave various reasons for going to war in Afghanistan and occupying Iraq, but now he says it was to establish democracy. An election of sorts was held in Afghanistan and one in Iraq is scheduled for January. Yet it is turning out that our own democracy and its voting mechanisms may again become the central issue in the campaign.

Many questions continue to surface. Will everyone entitled to vote actually be able to vote? Will all voters who cast legal votes have their votes counted accurately? Are the new electronic voting machines reliable or will they be manipulated? If a machine’s results are suspicious can they be verified through a paper trail? Have legitimate new voters been disenfranchised by partisan election officials using technicalities to knock them off of the voter rolls? Will polling places be moved or closed at the last minute with little or no notice? Will the worst and most unreliable voting machines (punch card) disproportionately end up in minority communities as happened in Chicago, Florida and elsewhere in 2000?

We now know punch card voting machines are the least reliable, but skepticism over electronic voting has led many states to keep them in place. For example, in the critical swing state of Ohio, according to a Century Foundation study, only four of 31 Ohio counties that were eligible to replace punch-card machines are actually doing so. Nationally, 32 million voters “including many in key battleground states still live in jurisdictions that will use punch card ballots,” likely meaning “far fewer African American votes will count relative to uncounted votes by white citizens.”

Will harassment play a role? Local election officials threatened to discount students who registered and planned to vote from their campus at Texas’ Prairie View A & M until a judge stopped them. Will election officials in other college towns have other tricks up their sleeve? Will “Ballot Security” and “Ballot Integrity” bullies attempt to suppress the vote in minority communities, especially in the African American community, which has been documented as having happened on a regular basis?

Will the Defense Department — which is responsible for members of the military and American civilians voting from abroad, approximately 6 million voters in all — have an efficient and fair system of voting? There are some indications it won’t. Military people who it is felt are more pro-Bush are being asked to fax their “secret” ballot to the Defense Department to be passed on to their local election board, while civilian Americans thought to be more pro-Kerry have had difficulty getting their ballots on time.

Just as Florida’s election officials engaged in some hanky panky with respect to alleged ex-felons in 2000, it was tried again in 2004 with only press exposure stopping them. Will the erroneous denial of so-called ex-felons’ right to vote in 2000 turn out to be another embarrassment in 2004?

Finally, after 100 million-plus popular votes will the presidency again be decided by one vote by a Supreme Court justice? It is almost certain with all of these shenanigans, questions and administrative fallacies that if the election is close, allegations of wrongdoing will surface and there will be dozens of lawsuits seeking to change the election results.

A recent New York Times editorial stated, “In a well-run democracy, the government would be running elections of … unquestioned integrity. … But the mechanics of American democracy are deeply flawed, and Congress, state governments and local elections officials have been unwilling to do what is necessary to fix them. If this election is going to be a fair and honest one, concerned citizens will have to do their part to ensure that every vote counts.” In other words, Americans are left to monitor their government-administered democracy with voluntary oversight!

Congress may or may not be willing to fix our flawed system. The reality is Congress is unable to fix it. Why? Because we have a “states’ rights” voting system and Congress has no power to fix it. Unlike free speech, assembly and religion, there is no individual right to vote in the Constitution — the main lesson of Bush v. Gore! And the Constitution has not authorized Congress to fix it! Only by adding an affirmative individual right to vote to the Constitution, and assigning Congress the power, can Congress design and implement a unitary voting system that provides every American an equal opportunity to vote and assures them that every vote will be counted accurately.

Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. represents Illinois’ Second Congressional District.