''American Idol'' is turning into the most scrutinized election, in terms of voting procedure, since the days of hanging chads in Florida. Responding to reports yesterday that ''Idol'' contestants had to sign a contract granting producers the final authority to choose the winner and to change the rules in mid-competition, Fox said that producers would do so only to protect the integrity of the voting procedure.
That process was called into question over the weekend, as producers admitted that about 100 phone-phreak hackers armed with rare power-dialing hardware and software had been voting early and often, logging as many as 10,000 votes from a single phone line, though producers insisted that they had been supporting different candidates and had canceled each other out without having a significant impact on the final results each week.
The Los Angeles Times reported Tuesday that ''Idol'' participants had to sign a ''phone book-thick'' contract that gives producers ''sole discretion'' to pick the winners and change the rules. Producer Nigel Lythgoe told the Times that the contracts had to anticipate every possible situation, and that, despite such just-in-case measures as the ''sole discretion'' clause, producers had no reason to rig the show in favor of any contestant. ''Why on Earth would we want to go against the public?'' he said.
Fox spokesman Joe Earley made similar comments to the New York Daily News. ''There is no nefarious intent,'' he said. ''If you mess with the vote, you destroy the franchise. And who would ever do that?''
Still, ''Idol'' producers have said, now that there are only a handful of finalists left, that they would step in and take measures if the phone-slamming got out of control enough to skew the voting. What those measures are remain undisclosed, just like each week's voting tallies.