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Voters should hold them accountable

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By MARTIN DYCKMAN, Times Associate Editor

© St. Petersburg Times
published October 20, 2002


TALLAHASSEE -- There is one question that will never be settled to everyone's satisfaction: Would George W. Bush be president if Florida's votes had been fully and fairly recounted two years ago?

One fact, however, is beyond argument: Without waiting to learn whether Bush actually had won the election, the Florida House of Representatives voted to steal it for him.

It did so in the form of a resolution, passed 79-41 on Dec. 12, to officially appoint the 25 electors pledged to the governor's brother. The Republicans asserted, with straight faces, that it was simply a well-intentioned effort to ensure that Florida's votes did not go uncounted.

But remember that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

The resolution's ultimate result could have been to assure that Florida's votes were not counted, leaving neither ticket with a majority of the nation's electors. In that event, it would have been left to the U.S. House of Representatives to elect the president, with each state having one vote. As the Republicans controlled a majority of delegations, the House presumably would have chosen Bush, even though Al Gore had more popular votes nationwide and more electoral votes among the other 49 states.

Now that would have presented a real crisis, far more so than having to wait a few more days to see what might come of a fair and thorough Florida recount.

The people pushing the resolution knew exactly what they were doing.

By that time, it will be recalled, the canvassing board made up of Gov. Jeb Bush , the ambitious Katherine Harris and the equally ambitious Bob Crawford (who was soon to be rewarded with a $200,000 sinecure at the Department of Citrus) had already certified the George Bush slate. Were a recount to show that Gore had won, the Florida Supreme Court might have ordered them to recall that slate and substitute Gore's. But it would have had a harder time enforcing its will on the Legislature.

So the Congress would have been confronted on Jan. 5, 2001, with competing slates. In such a situation, congressional rules require both houses to agree or neither slate is counted. The Republican House would have checked the Democratic Senate and would have gone on to elect a president for only the third time, and the first since 1825.

It didn't come to that, of course. Some seven hours after the Florida House voted, the U.S. Supreme Court seized upon an insignificant deadline as a pretext to foreclose any further Florida recount. That delivered the presidency to Bush and spared the Florida Senate, which had stalled as long as possible, from having to vote on the House resolution.

It also spared the courts endless more hours of debate as to whether the Legislature, having allowed the people to vote for president Nov. 2, could legally take that power to itself after the election. There were powerful constitutional arguments why it could not.

Nonetheless, there remains an indelible blot on the records of those 79 House members who were willing (if not all of them eager) to steal the election. All 77 Republicans voted for it, along with two Democrats from conservative North Florida districts that Bush had carried handily.

As it happened, 16 of those Republicans represented districts where the Gore-Lieberman ticket had led. At least some of them must have had second thoughts about telling their own constituents, in effect, to go to hell. Whatever their private dismay may have been, however, it would have been no match for the pressures that top guns such as Tom Feeney and Johnnie Byrd could bring to bear.

The 16 include Reps. David Russell, Brooksville; Heather Fiorentino, New Port Richey; Kim Berfield, Clearwater; Leslie Waters, Seminole; Frank Farkas, St. Petersburg; and Sandra Murman, Tampa.

Redistricting is one way in which the rich get richer, so Republicans needing safer districts got them this year. In the Tampa Bay area, however, there was only so much that could be done for the six whose districts had gone for Gore. All but Murman still have constituencies that favored the Democratic ticket, though less so than before.

Before Nov. 5, at least some of those voters ought to demand straight answers to why they did what they did two years ago. Strangely, the Democrats don't seem to be making an issue of it.

This isn't to say that anyone deserves to be defeated solely on that account. Elections are, or ought to be, about many things.

But there's a future to think about. Assume an election that coincides with a great national emergency -- say, a war that's going badly -- and the argument is made once again that the nation cannot afford the uncertainty of knowing who the president will be. The temptation would be strong, perhaps irresistible, for another legislature to reassert the constitutional power to select its state's electors. This hasn't happened since 1876, in newly admitted Colorado, but with the Florida House having rubbed the magic lamp, who can be confident that we've heard the last of it?

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