Votes count

As Commonweal goes to press (Tuesday, December 5) the number of variables still in play in determining the Florida presidential vote would make a calculus instructor dizzy, although by the time this issue gets to subscribers the Florida Supreme Court may well have decided who the winner is. Yesterday the U.S. Supreme Court instructed Florida’s Supreme Court to clarify its reasons for permitting recounts in certain counties and extending the deadline for final certification of the Florida vote. It is unclear what impact, if any, this will have on the final vote count. At the same time, the Gore campaign continues to contest the vote already certified by Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, trying to show that undercounted or never-counted ballots in Palm Beach, Nassau, and Miami-Dade counties should not be excluded from any final tally. That case, rejected in the lower court, is also now on appeal before the Florida high court. In separate proceedings, other Democrats are challenging irregularities concerning absentee ballots in Seminole County.

In response to these various challenges, lawyers for Governor George W. Bush have adopted a strategy of legal obstructionism, hoping to delay any court action that might result in a more complete vote count before December 12, the date by which Florida must select its electors to the Electoral College. In addition, some leaders of Florida’s Republican-controlled legislature have threatened to reject any court-ordered recount that shows Al Gore the winner and to send a slate of Republican electors to Washington. If the courts and legislature send different sets of electors, the next president will be selected by a vote of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Republican concerns, if not their outrage, are easy to understand. No one should pretend that hand recounts, especially when they entail deciphering the meaning of pregnant, dimpled, or dangling "chads," are a process free of ambiguity or the danger of partisan manipulation. This whole debacle has revealed the need for vast improvements in the nation’s voting procedures and mechanisms. That said, actual evidence of manipulation or fraud in the recount process has been virtually nonexistent. The work of the county canvassing boards has been an inspiring example of why democracy places its trust in the judgment of ordinary citizens. In fact, the only instance of well-documented disruption concerned a demonstration organized by Republicans that seems to have intimidated Miami-Dade officials, who subsequently abandoned the court-sanctioned recount effort.

Certainly Al Gore has pursued his own interests aggressively and with his usual abrasive self-righteousness, and Democrats have been guilty of using extreme rhetoric, especially in their attacks on Katherine Harris. But Gore’s legal right-and arguably his duty-to contest an election where the margin of victory is smaller than the statistical margin of error is indisputable. Bush’s behavior and tactics have been much more questionable. In essence, Bush has been determined to avoid any recount, no matter how scrupulous the procedures involved. This was evident from the moment he rejected Gore’s proposal for a statewide recount. It became unmistakable in the hysterical and irresponsible reaction of the Bush campaign to the Florida Supreme Court decision allowing recounts, and in the sorry spectacle of Bush, the nation’s likely next president, impugning that court’s integrity. It reached its nadir when Bush spokesman, Montana Governor Marc Racicot, used a dispute over absentee military ballots to charge the Democrats with "going to war...against the men and women who serve in the armed forces."

Ironically, as a matter of law, Bush, who has persistently denigrated legal remedies to this conflict, may well prevail in the short term. As court hearings drag on in Florida and recounts are delayed or abandoned, time appears to have run out for Gore. Similarly, if two slates of Florida electors are sent to Washington, the result in the Republican-controlled House is a forgone conclusion. But on a more fundamental moral level, and even as a question of practical politics, Bush’s strategy is likely to be self-defeating. If it becomes evident that Gore actually won the popular vote in Florida but was denied the presidency because of Republican obstruction of the process, Bush will never win the full trust of the American people. Given the opportunity to demonstrate the sort of bipartisanship he prattled on endlessly about during the campaign, Bush has shown himself to be just as eager as any Gingrich Republican to malign the motives, integrity, and patriotism of his opponents. Promising to bring "honor and dignity back to the White House," he has instead extended the practice of low cunning and self-serving demagoguery that characterizes Washington at its worst.

If Bush is convinced, as he says he is, that he won the vote in Florida, why hasn’t he put his trust in the democratic system he proposes to lead to determine the winner of this election. The first principle of that system is that every vote is equal and every vote counts. At this point, George W. Bush seems to regard that principle as an arcane point of law instead of the lifeblood of democracy.

Published in the 2000-12-15 issue: 
Also by this author
September 11, 2001

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