Election Diary

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The Independent US

A photo on the web from the first debate in Miami appears to show a small box lodged between Bush's shoulderblades under his jacket. Bloggers say it was a receiver which enabled Karl Rove to feed the President his lines. Why else did the 32-page list of debate rules contain a ban on TV shots of the candidates from behind?

At first the Republicans said the photo had been doctored. Then when the TV footage appeared to confirm the existence of this mysterious bulge, Mark Mckinnon, George Bush's media adviser, said: "I love this. Am tempted to say, 'I cannot confirm or deny,' and let the story get some legs. Or, how about, 'Since we put the metal plate in his head, we have had some measure of success with audio transmissions to the President.' Or, 'Yeah, but it clearly broke down during the debate.' Unfortunately, the truth is not nearly as interesting. The answer is, 'The President has never been assisted by any audio signal.'"

At least some of the White House people have a healthy sense of perspective.

Talking of strange stories, it emerged this week that an Iraqi had been captured in Baghdad with a computer disk full of photos and floor plans of American schools.

The government sent an advisory to numerous school districts including Florida, Oregon, New Jersey and Michigan, warning them to be on the look out. Local newscasts were full of dire suggestions about a possible Beslan-style attack.

Then intelligence sources revealed that the man appeared to be involved in city planning in Baghdad. "Officials didn't discover any direct threat," admitted a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security. This part of the story received less coverage.

Was it any coincidence that the schools all happened to be in swing states?

And now, from West Virginia, comes hair-raising evidence of ballot fraud. In Logan County, $15 or a pint of whisky is the going rate for a vote. A common practice, I was told, is to pay volunteers $50 or $60 to drive people to the polls on election day - a perfectly legal practice, except that the money is used to "deliver" the votes of that person's family.

The beneficiary drives his family to the polls and goes home. The crime is almost impossible to detect. But then so is the vote - the only drawback for the payer is that they can't be sure the family voted as promised.

You might think this is just the habits of the backwoods, but the loosening of rules governing the way Americans vote is enabling vote-buying to make a comeback. Twenty-six states now allow people to vote unsupervised in the privacy of their own home by absentee ballot.

Tom Carver is the Washington correspondent for BBC2's 'Newsnight'

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