A great irony accompanies the news that a federal committee is looking at a Venezuelan company's takeover of a U.S. firm that provides some of the new electronic voting machines Congress has required American voters to use this coming election.
Fears about the security and reliability of the new computerized voting machines mandated by the Help America Vote Act have been expressed in multiple ways. Reports by distinguished groups such as Common Cause have made plain that the new machines are vulnerable to mischief. A congressional committee has seen a demonstration of how they can be manipulated to register the wrong results.
Yet despite all these warnings -- plus the many lawsuits filed, editorials written and citizen presentations to elected officials -- the general reaction has been a collective ho-hum.
To be sure, legislation in Congress has been proposed to require a voter-verified paper record in the new machines -- which is a proper way to restore confidence in the new systems. But HR 550, which has attracted bipartisan support and is backed by 220 House members, remains in committee.
This is an issue whose time has not yet come -- but could come as quickly as next Tuesday, with calamitous results. Perhaps what has inhibited this debate is the perception that such fears have been the obsession of left-leaning sore losers who think President Bush stole one, if not two, of his presidential victories.
Yet thoughtful conservatives have come to realize that voter fraud is an equal-opportunity activity. As columnist George F. Will observed in recent days, Congress' action in seeking to forestall another Florida hanging-chad debacle may create another such episode of long waiting and national confusion.
If this is paranoia, how can it be made respectable? By dropping the name of a well-known bogeyman in the nation's consciousness: Hugo Chavez.
The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, an inter-agency group chaired by the Treasury secretary, is formally investigating a Venezuelan-founded company, Smartamatic Corp. and its U.S. subsidiary, Sequoia Voting Systems Inc., which made the machines used in 16 states plus the District of Columbia (Allegheny County and its neighbors have machines from a different manufacturer).
The fear is that Venezuelan President Chavez, who called President Bush a "devil" at the United Nations, is somehow calling the shots at the company with possible nefarious consequences -- a scenario emphatically denied by Smartmatic Corp.'s CEO.
Indeed, this fear may be groundless. After all, it would be the mother of all political plots. Still, the investigation does Americans an unwitting service. If the idea that Hugo Chavez could rig an American election can be taken seriously, how much more seriously should we take locally hatched plots? The answer is a lot.
God bless America and may it muddle through its Nov. 7 election. After that, Congress needs to recognize more plausible threats to our voting than Mr. Chavez and act accordingly. As often observed, even paranoids have real enemies.