The ballot-box lessons of the 2000 presidential election are still powerful. The future leadership of the world's remaining superpower came down to hanging chads in Florida and an infinitesimally small fraction of the total ballots cast. George W. Bush won his first victory with the thinnest of margins, a never-to-be-forgotten reminder that every vote counts.

That's why the controversy surrounding the activist group Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) bears additional scrutiny. If there's even a whiff of potential irregularities with the voting process, it needs to be checked out. That's what's happening right now as authorities in Minnesota and other battleground states review voter registration cards submitted by ACORN staff. Reports recently surfaced in Minnesota of two incidents (one in Hennepin County, one in Ramsey County) in which ACORN staff turned in a batch of forms beyond the 10-day window allowed. In other states, there were allegations that voter registration cards turned in by the group's employees were signed by the likes of Mickey Mouse. Talk radio and TV pundits accused the group, which targets low-income and minority voters, of trying to steal the election. Others labeled it a Republican smear campaign, noting that ACORN had been targeted by the Department of Justice at the time it fired regional U.S. attorneys.

On Thursday, it was reported that the FBI is investigating the group to determine if there's evidence of coordinated national fraud. With emotions running so high on both sides, questions about voter registration efforts need to be taken seriously. ACORN officials nationally and in Minnesota have said they're not afraid of the scrutiny. "We have no problem defending ourselves, defending our record,'' said Brandon Nessen of the Minnesota ACORN office.

The controversy involving ACORN requires some context. The group stands accused of voter registration irregularities or lapses, not voter fraud. That's an important distinction. So far, there's no evidence that anyone registered by the group voted illegally. And often, it's ACORN itself that has flagged problematic registration cards when turning them in to election officials; in most states it's required to turn in all cards even if they're incomplete.

At the very least, the concerns raised about ACORN suggest there's still room for quality control improvement in voter registration drives by it and other organizations. A Minnesota law passed earlier this year may be a national model. It prohibits get-out-the-vote drives from paying workers per completed registration card. That eliminates financial incentive to simply turn in more cards.

The beauty of a democracy is that every vote counts equally; there's no difference between the ballots cast by rock stars, suburban moms or plumbers. It's hard to argue against getting more people involved in the process, as ACORN has done by registering 1.3 million new voters. At the same time, when concerns are raised they must be addressed. The same level of scrutiny given to ACORN should also be applied to other voting irregularities that have surfaced recently. New York Times reporters found that government officials in battleground states may have violated federal law by purging thousands of voters from registration rolls. These irregularities should have sparked the same outcry but unfortunately have not.

Ensuring the nation's voting process is fundamentally sound is critical as one of the most contentious elections in years comes to a close. This year, especially, there's no room for doubt.