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    Hoping for a fair and accurate vote count to end this mess

    By PHIL GAILEY

    © St. Petersburg Times, published November 19, 2000


    As I write this on Friday afternoon, before the absentee ballots from overseas are tallied, before the courts have disposed of all the legal challenges piling up, before the manual recounts are completed in a handful of Democratic strongholds, I find myself hoping that the overseas ballots break so decisively for either George W. Bush or Al Gore that further recounts and litigation become pointless. The question on most people's minds is no longer which candidate will win, but when will it all end?

    While the nation is looking for an exit strategy, Gore is searching for a controlling legal authority, and Bush is trying to sit on his razor-thin lead long enough to be certified the winner of the Florida vote. Bush's position is "damn the chad" -- dimpled, pregnant, hanging or otherwise. He is ready to have the crown placed on his head. Gore, meanwhile, is lawyering on, filing legal challenges and pushing for manual recounts in Democratic counties. Neither candidate has had a presidential moment yet, not in the long campaign that ended Nov. 7 or in the noisy, litigious dispute over Florida's vote since the election.

    Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris had intended to declare a winner in Florida's presidential vote on Saturday, after the overseas ballots had been totaled, but the state Supreme Court ordered her not to certify the election until further notice. This was a setback, at least temporarily, for the Bush campaign, which had counted on public opinion, once Bush was declared the winner in Florida, to turn against Gore's effort to prolong the dispute through litigation.

    Unfortunately, there are too many lawyers involved, too many lawsuits in play, too many political interests at stake, to bring this election to a quick and satisfying conclusion. Neither side seems to care that the next president will have to convince half the country that he is the legitimate occupant of the nation's highest office or that he didn't steal the election through partisan shenanigans or legal maneuvers.

    I don't want to see this presidential election decided by win-at-any-cost lawyering, or by a closely divided Congress, or by partisan election officials at either the local or state level. I don't want to see the integrity of the Electoral College compromised or to have the next president, whoever he is, politically crippled from the day he takes the oath of office. I still believe that a fair and accurate vote count is the best way out of this mess, if only Gore and Bush can agree on what constitutes a fair and accurate vote count.

    Gore's strategy is clear: Keep on counting. The vice president believes -- and he may be correct -- that more Floridians cast their votes for him than for Bush on Nov. 7, but that hundreds, maybe even thousands, of his votes were not counted for various reasons. He wants a manual recount of the ballots in his three strongest counties -- Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade -- for a simple reason: So far, he has gained votes with every recount, by machine or by hand. In Broward County, the local canvassing board did a manual recount in sample precincts and concluded there was no need for a countywide recount by hand. A few days later, after coming under heavy political pressure from Gore operatives, the Broward board reversed itself and voted to proceed with a manual recount.

    Absent any evidence of voting irregularities, it may turn out that Secretary of State Harris is well within the bounds of her discretion in rejecting the manual recounts that she concluded are nothing more than a search for additional votes for Gore. Democrats have denounced her decision as arbitrary and are hoping the courts will agree. That's really the decisive legal issue yet to be decided. A Leon County circuit judge ruled Friday in Harris' favor, and the Democrats immediately filed an appeal.

    Democrats have mostly themselves to blame for the botched balloting in their strongest counties. They designed the confusing "butterfly" ballot in Palm Beach County they now say is illegal. Democrats in Broward and Miami-Dade have long been aware of the problems with the punch-ballot system they now claim undercounted Gore's vote. And according to a New York Times report on Friday, Democrats in Duval County admit that they may have given African-American voters confusing instructions that resulted in more than 9,000 ballots being tossed out in predominantly black precincts. So it could be Duval, not Palm Beach, that cost Gore the election.

    Before giving up on Florida, the Gore campaign is reported to be ready to exercise its "nuclear button option" -- asking the courts to declare Palm Beach County's ballot illegal and order a revote. That almost certainly would give Gore Florida's 25 electoral votes -- he would likely pick up most of the votes cast for Ralph Nader in the first balloting -- but the equivalent of a stacked election would be the worst possible way for Gore to win the White House.

    The question both Gore and Bush should be asking themselves at this point is what, if anything, do they value more than their personal ambitions? Is winning more important than the legitimacy of the process or the standing of the office they have diminished even before one of them moves in?

    Does Bush, who came in second in the national popular vote, want to claim victory in the Electoral College because Florida's Republican secretary of state (and the co-chair of the Bush campaign in Florida) refused to accept the results of manual recounts that could change the outcome? Does Gore want to win the White House because a herd of lawyers persuaded the courts to force Harris to accept the recounted ballots in heavily Democratic counties?

    The really depressing thing about it all is that this fight probably won't be over even when one of these guys moves into the White House on Jan. 20. Regardless of who the winner turns out to be, there is already talk among Democrats and Republicans of a Bush-Gore rematch in 2004. If we must be punished for our sins, we should pray for mercy and ask God to send down a plague of locusts instead.

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