"Hey, Relax: We Wuzn’t Robbed"

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Hey, Relax: We Wuzn't Robbed

For all the feverish accusations on both sides, no one's stealing this election -- at least for now

Jonathan Alter Newsweek Nov. 27 issue -- Fifty years from now, what will our grandchildren learn about the Double Overtime Election of 2000? That it was exciting, fierce and perfectly representative of the turn-of-the-century "American Courtroom Era," when legal dramas involving a football player accused of murder and an oversexed president were merely preludes to adjudicating the very heart of American democracy. IT'S HAND-TO-HAND, ballot-by-ballot legal combat, now spreading to the overseas absentees. This year we may get a bloody glove in every precinct in Florida. Historians might also note that the election was incompetent on all sides (including some voters'), but surprisingly clean. Contrary to feverish allegations, no one is "stealing" this one -- at least not yet. The accounts of actual malfeasance don't go much beyond one lady in Wisconsin supposedly offering a few homeless people some cigarettes if they showed up at the polls. Only the near-dead have voted, not the dead themselves, and few votes anywhere are unaccounted for. It wouldn't be pretty to win on technicalities like missed deadlines for hand counts or "dimpled chads," but it wouldn't be illegal either. Bending the law to one's own advantage is now a quintessentially American sport. Part of the fun is just watching the combatants twist themselves into pretzels. Last week the Republicans became the party of federal judicial activism and the Democrats the party of autonomous local government. Bush, the candidate with the human touch, the one whose slogan was "I trust the people," suddenly trusts machines. Gore, the robo-candidate, the one who goes nowhere without his pocket BlackBerry e-mail gizmo, is suddenly all hand touchy and low tech. Any of those positions could -- and would -- be reversed in a heartbeat to win, which is not as upsetting as it sounds. Politics is supposed to be intensely political. If the Democrats lose, they will have mostly themselves to blame. It's now clear that tens of thousands more Floridians went to the polls intending to vote for Gore than for Bush on Nov. 7. (The early call by the networks of Florida for Gore was terrible but came only 10 minutes before the polls closed in the heavily Republican Florida Panhandle, too little time to discourage voting.) Why did those Gore voters spoil their ballots in such large numbers in Palm Beach and Duval counties? Poor ballot design and instructions by Democratic officials. This followed more than a decade of Democrats around the country slitting their own throats by doing nothing to discard the punch-card election system (used in 37 percent of polling places nationally) that consistently disenfranchises their most loyal voters. How do I know this? My mother used to be a Chicago politician. In 1990, when she ran unsuccessfully for Cook County clerk, her campaign issued a report showing that close to 5 percent of voters in poor areas of Chicago spoiled their Votomatic punch-card ballots -- eight times higher than in the Republican suburbs. In other words, large numbers of urban Democratic votes were not being counted. But the once powerful Chicago Machine never overhauled its own voting machines, or alerted Democrats elsewhere in the country to junk the punch-card system. (Even the punch-card manufacturers admitted to The New York Times last week that hand counts are more reliable.) The Daleys -- and the Democratic Party more generally -- were so busy courting business overseas that they didn't take care of business at home. Similarly, if the Republicans lose, it won't be because of what George Will calls "slow-motion larceny." The complexities of hand counts are not a Gore plot but the reality of close elections in most states, including Texas, where George W. Bush signed a bill in 1997 that uses the same "sunlight test" to measure punch-card penetration that has led to such snorts of GOP contempt in Florida. The concern about frequent handling of ballots is a canard; only "hanging chad" (true votes the machine doesn't register) is knocked loose by recounts, which is a good thing. Reasonable Republicans like Sen. Chuck Hagel, Bill Kristol and former RNC co-chair Thomas Evans are coming forward to say that a statewide hand count is the only fair way to resolve this thing. It's also the only way to ensure true legitimacy for the new president. Were Bush to prevail without hand counts, he would be literally winning the White House on Katherine Harris's say-so. Were Gore to win with hand counts just in Democratic counties like Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade, his victory would be tainted. Fortunately, the solution is at hand. The Florida Supreme Court has the authority to address all of Jim Baker's concerns by setting consistent "chad" standards, providing more neutral supervision in the precincts and waiving the missed deadlines for seeking hand counts. If the endgame is structured properly, the new president should, in fact, be able to govern. Bitter partisans on both sides will scream for four years, but most people are likely to accept the result and move on. The president's success or lack thereof will probably depend on external events and the intangibles of leadership, not this weird interlude. The president and Congress will work together when they have to, and won't when they don't. And there is room for compromise. For instance, bills to help charter schools and ease the marriage penalty in the tax code are likely to pass, whoever wins. John F. Kennedy won the popular vote by an even smaller national majority than Gore did, and he suffered a severe foreign-policy setback his first year in office. But he still managed to leave a mark. When chad is just a memory, so can Gore or Bush. (C) 2000 Newsweek, Inc.

-- (both@sides.now), November 25, 2000

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