AUSTIN, Texas -- For those in favor of having this argument like grown-ups, some history may be helpful.

The punch-card voting system has been a consistent election problem for the last 30 years. About 37 percent of Americans still vote on the rickety little plastic tables, punching holes in cards. (Those present at the dawn of the computer era will recall the old "Do Not Fold, Spindle or Mutilate" cards, but you'll have to explain them to your children.)

The cards are then run through machines that are notoriously error-prone -- and, as writer Ronnie Dugger has been pointing out for years, also highly susceptible to manipulation.

None of this is new information, nor has it appeared only after this close election. Dugger wrote a long article for the Nov. 7, 1988, issue of The New Yorker about the potential for fraud and the many proofs of error by this early, proto-computer voting system. The 1988 article contained, among other information, a detailed description of how to rig a Votomatic counting machine.

Dugger now feels that the single most misleading statement of the post-election impasse was James Baker's claim: "Machines are neither Republicans nor Democrats and therefore can be neither consciously nor unconsciously biased."

Dugger wrote in the Dec. 4 New Republic: "Literally speaking, of course, he's right: Machines don't have political beliefs. But computer programmers do. Just as a dishonest and determined vote inspector can claim to see a hanging chad where none exists, so can a dishonest and determined vote-counting-machine programmer add votes to a candidate's total, transfer votes from one candidate to another or determine an outcome with a specified percentage spread.

"Voting machines, in other words, can be as 'biased' as their human masters want them to be. And when they are, it's a lot harder to detect. To steal votes in the South Florida hand recounts, you'd have to escape the eyes of an army of bipartisan observers and reporters. ... Even the software's own designers admit that without security checks on the process and a hand count as a fallback, we'd have no way to know whether such fraud had taken place."

The probability of error is far greater than the possibility of fraud in this case. In the 1988 article, Dugger reported:

"It appears that since 1980 errors and accidents have proliferated in computer-counted elections. Since 1984, the State of Illinois has tested local computerized systems by running many thousands of machine-punched mock ballots through them, rather than the few tens of ballots that local officials customarily use. As of the most recent tests this year, error in the basic counting instructions in the computer programs had been found in almost a fifth of the examinations. These 'tabulation-program errors' probably would not have been caught in the local jurisdictions. 'I don't understand why nobody cares,' said Michael L. Harty, who was until recently the director of voting systems and standards for Illinois. 'At one point we had tabulation errors in 28 percent of the systems tested, and nobody cared.'"

Well, they do now, and it's worth looking at. Perhaps the most intriguing precedent of all the contested punch-card elections was 12 years ago in Florida, of course, when Democrat Buddy McKay lost a Senate race by a few votes after a recount to Republican Connie Mack.

Dugger reported: "In 1988, in McKay's four Democratic stronghold counties, there were 210,000 people who voted for president but did not vote in the U.S. Senate race (undervoters). In a comparable U.S. Senate race in a presidential-election year -- 1980 -- in the same four counties, three out of every 100 presidential voters did not vote for senator; in 1988, 14 out every 100 did not. In the entire state of Florida, excluding the four McKay counties, fewer than one of 100 presidential voters were not recorded as also voting in the Senate race. Three of the McKay counties from 1988 are among Gore's four recount counties."

From the beginning of this contested election, it's seemed clear to me that a teeny-tiny majority of Floridians, probably 60,000 to 70,000, set out on Election Day intending to vote for Al Gore. That was not the result. That the voters' intention was not the official result is not necessarily sufficient legal reason to throw out the result. Them's the rules.

If George W. Bush wins under the rules, then he wins, even if more people voted for Gore. Contesting an election is not unusual, alarming, or an attempt to bend the rules or steal the election. It is relatively commonplace -- it's just that no living American has ever seen it happen in a race this big before. It's pretty exciting.

Contested elections are normally settled under state rules, so we could see how the matter would be resolved, even if we didn't know who would win. But since the U.S. Supremes chose to get involved in this one, all bets are off.

Now no one knows how it will end, and it may end badly in a complete partisan hash. But in the meantime, there is nothing illegitimate about contesting an election, about taking it to the state courts or, as far as we know, about having a state Supreme Court resolve conflicting state statutes.

Now is the time for all good men and women to come to the aid of their country. Wash off the war paint; ease up on the reins; choke your motor; don't get your bloomers in a knot here. We may need all the cool hands and heads we can find.

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2000 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.