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By PHILIP GAILEY
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 3, 2000
The presidential vote in Florida is a virtual tie, and it's not much of an exaggeration at this point to say the only way to win this election is for a candidate to steal it. Democrats are accusing George W. Bush of stealing it politically, and Republicans are charging that Al Gore is trying to steal it in the courts. Neither would be a satisfying outcome, but the public is going to have to get used to the idea. It's not likely we will ever resolve the question of whether the Florida vote was fairly and accurately counted. Bush doesn't want an accurate count, and Gore isn't interested in a fair one.
This is no longer a lofty battle on either side. Some of us have had our fill of the partisan hacking and the sanctimonious spin about the "will of the people." We're tired of Democratic lawyers filing lawsuits against local Democratic election officials who didn't follow the Gore script for counting dimpled chads. We're sick of the hypocrisy from both candidates, and we're troubled by the political mischief brewing in Tallahassee and in Washington.
The time is near when one of these candidates -- most likely Al Gore -- will have to put us out of our misery. It may not be fair, but it will be in the best interest of the nation. It's not the way we wanted to see this election end, but we are ready for it to end -- even if it means putting finality ahead of justice. Let's face it: There can be no legitimate winner of this contest. Florida has seen to that. In the latest issue of the New Yorker magazine, John Allen Paulos, a professor of mathematics at Temple University, is quoted as saying, "The margin of error in this election is far greater than the margin of victory, no matter who wins."
If the U.S. Supreme Court rules against Bush, who argues that the Florida Supreme Court overstepped its authority in extending the deadline for a manual recount, it won't change the fact that the Texas governor is the certified winner of Florida's 25 electoral votes and the presumptive president-elect. But it could buy Gore more time to pursue his legal quest to overturn Bush's victory in state courts, an uphill battle that could exhaust the public's patience and toss the issue to Congress for resolution early next year.
It's true that thousands of Florida votes will not be counted, and in many cases for legitimate reasons. But that's true in every state. Nationwide, more than 2-million defective or questionable ballots were tossed. The Bush campaign was wrong to reject a statewide manual recount; the Gore campaign is just as wrong to insist that the slightest indentation on a punch-card ballot should be counted in every case. Florida judges permitted election officials in Palm Beach and Broward counties to use their discretion in counting dimpled chads, but contrary to what the Gore campaign suggests, they rarely have been counted in most places in the 38-year history of punch-card voting.
According to a story in the Washington Post, Gore's demand that dimpled ballots be counted "runs contrary to the practice in almost all jurisdictions that use the punch-card ballot system." Ironically, the notable exception is Texas. R. Doug Lewis, executive director of the Election Center, a nonpartisan group that trains and certifies election supervisors, told the Post that to his knowledge, with the exception of Texas, "no election official has counted a dimpled chad as a vote. Instead they tend to turn the question over to a judge, and historically the courts around the country have said dimpled chads aren't clear enough for them."
The Post also quoted Illinois lawyers as saying the Gore campaign and the Florida Supreme Court were mistaken in citing an Illinois Supreme Court decision in 1990 as a precedent for counting dimpled chads. In fact, the ballots at issue in Illinois were "hanging chads," which are partially detached. Would Gore have us decide the presidency on the basis of dimpled, unperforated ballots that are inconclusive? Apparently he would, for dimpled chads are about all he has left.
It can't be easy for a candidate who amassed a 300,000-vote lead in the national vote to concede this presidential election, especially knowing that he may not get another chance to realize his life-long ambition. The vice president may feel he has been cheated out of the presidency, but, as President John F. Kennedy once said, life is unfair. So is politics. Gore has a right to legally contest the Florida results, but he needs to consider whether his struggle is worth the price. Gore should not want to win on the basis of dimpled chads, legal technicalities, selective recounts and ill-advised lawsuits against local Democratic canvassing boards.
The question is no longer just whether Gore can win; it is how far is he prepared to go to win, and at what cost? If Gore should somehow manage to emerge from this squalid political brawl as president, he will be even more despised and detested by the Republican right than the man they have been obsessed with defeating for eight years, William Jefferson Clinton.