Here’s the difference between vote fraud, which is real, and voter fraud, which, though almost nonexistent, has instantly gripped the popular imagination:

The former is a complex, internal problem of democracy, the acknowledgment of which requires us to face our national contradictions and inner demons, and, applying informed intelligence, demand changes in our system so it restrains our worst impulses and truly serves our ideals; the latter is a simple, mythical problem, a variation of the familiar “us vs. them” scenario that allows “us” to feel righteously threatened and strike at “them” (and their allies) with passion and force.

The two issues — one real and deeply troubling, the other false yet familiar and compelling — define, with what I would call barbed irony, our national juncture, which is headed toward a profound resolution on Election Day, less than three weeks hence.

Will we continue on as the United States of George Bush, arrogant, reckless and scared of our own shadow? This is increasingly the tenor of the desperate, fact-challenged McCain-Palin campaign, which is going all out to stoke its base into a frenzy of us vs. the terrorists, us vs. the Muslims, us vs. the elitists, us vs. the ’60s radicals,. . . us vs. “them” (shhhh, you know who I mean, Michelle’s his baby mama).

What it comes down to is us vs. anybody. This is the language of war. It’s the only language spoken by McCain, the hijacked Republican Party and the media blather-machine that serves them.

So consider the sudden enemy status accorded the national community organization ACORN, which has helped some 1.3 million people — low-income, young and minority — register to vote this year. For its trouble, the organization was raided by police in Las Vegas and seriously challenged in Missouri, Ohio and elsewhere by the very officials who ought to be thanking them for expanding the reach of democracy.

At issue were a small number of duplicate or improperly filled out registration forms, inevitable in any operation on such a large scale, which the organization flagged when it submitted the forms to state boards of election.

“In nearly every case that has been reported , it was ACORN that discovered the bad forms, and called them to the attention of election authorities,” the organization notes in a press release. Furthermore: “There has never been a single reported instance in which bogus registration forms have led to anyone voting improperly,” the organization points out. “To do that, they would have to show up at the polls, prove their identity as all first-time registrants must, and risk jail.”

Could a “national threat” possibly be less plausible? Yet vilifying ACORN and other voter registration groups that seek to enfranchise and empower the socially marginalized serves several purposes. (Vilifying them again, I should say; the “attorney-gate” scandal that led to Alberto Gonzales’ disgraced departure from the Justice Department a year ago was about the firing of U.S. attorneys who refused to prosecute such organizations on trumped up voter-fraud charges in 2004 and 2006.)

Doing so not only stokes the Republican base the same way calling Barack Obama a terrorist does, setting real Americans against the riffraff who would try to breach our electoral process the same way they’re sneaking across our borders; it also creates a “false equivalence,” as Kenneth Anderson put it, with the vote fraud and suppression tactics the GOP is in fact using — by purging voter rolls and many other means — to keep as many Democrats as possible from voting this year, and at the same time serves the cause of vote suppression by creating a voting climate of chaos and duress.

“The strategy,” writes Anderson for OpEd News, “is set: purge voters, sow confusion, and stomp up and down about ‘voter fraud’ emanating from a grass roots community organization most Americans have never heard of.”

He adds: “In the event that GOP election rigging, voter disenfranchisement and the expected waves of confusion, failing machines and voter challenges at the polls on election night fail to deliver John McCain a win in November, ‘voter fraud’ will be the first thing to ring out from Republicans across the country.”

Thus as we head toward a historic showdown on Nov. 4, let us do so with our eyes wide open. The vote totals announced that night on the tube will only be part of the story and, almost certainly, only a partial reflection of the national will. How many legitimate voters will be denied the right to vote? How many will be discouraged by long lines caused by equipment breakdown or a deliberately insufficient number of machines in their precinct? Will all the votes be recorded and counted correctly?

Wanting every eligible voter to cast a vote and have it counted is not a partisan position, yet in a nation that is at war with itself it becomes one.

Robert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, is an editor at Tribune Media Services and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at or visit his Web site at © 2008 Tribune Media Services, Inc.