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Press Bill Press is co-host of CNN's Crossfire. He is providing exclusive analysis to CNN during the election season.

Bill Press: Florida Legislature should butt out

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush has finally figured out the key to stealing this election: Just in case his Daddy's Supreme Court doesn't do it for him, his baby brother's legislature will.

The Florida Legislature is overwhelmingly Republican: a margin of 77 to 43 in the House; 25 to 15 in the Senate. The Republican majority are close allies of Gov. Jeb Bush, ready to jump at his command. And what he's asked them to do is diabolical: simply ignore the Florida state courts and the people of Florida, name a whole new slate of electors pledged to George W. Bush, and thereby dictate who won the election in Florida and who will be the next president of the United States.

It's the biggest partisan political power grab since President Franklin Roosevelt tried to pack the Supreme Court with his cronies -- and just as antithetical to democracy.

If there's one thing all Americans believe, it's that we can be trusted to elect our own leaders. We don't need politicians, nor trust politicians, to do it for us. The Florida Legislature is trying to take that right away: a move that is unnecessary, unpopular and, perhaps, unconstitutional.

There's no need for the legislature to act. Secretary of State Katherine Harris has already certified the election for Bush. If Judge N. Sanders Sauls orders a recount of disputed ballots and Bush loses, she will have to recertify the election for Democratic nominee Al Gore. No problem.

No problem, that is, unless your name is Bush. Then you panic and look for a way to thwart the will of the public. Which is exactly what Jeb Bush is doing, using members of the legislature as his pawns.

In an interview on CNN's "Burden of Proof" this week, C. Boyden Gray, former White House counsel for President Bush, unmasked the true intent of the Florida power play: "There may be a role here for an insurance policy, maybe not now, because the 12th is not here yet, but there's nothing wrong, it seems to me, to provide an insurance policy for after the 12th."

In other words, just in case George Bush is no longer the winner in Florida on Dec. 12 -- the deadline for states to submit names of electors to Congress -- Republican legislators are preparing a back-up plan, an insurance policy, for taking over the process, rejecting the will of the people and throwing the election to Bush.

Of course, they'll claim they're only acting to make sure Florida has a voice in the selection of a president. But no matter what pious rhetoric they use, it amounts to stealing the election. There's no difference between what they're planning and walking into a bank, pulling out a gun, and stealing all the money.

The people of Florida understand that, even if members of the legislature don't. They don't want their votes stolen. One outraged citizen told a legislative committee: "By every one of you deciding our president for us, it's like saying you know Florida residents have the right to vote, but let's just go over that right now and let's make their vote for them. Of course, you guys probably don't feel as we do ... but to us our single votes are the most important thing that we have and the only voice that we have in our community."

Editorial comment has been equally harsh. "That won't be good for Florida. It wouldn't be good for the nation. And it would erode what little mandate to govern the next president likely will have," opined the Orlando Sentinel. Other major state papers echoed that warning.

The Florida Legislature is acting unwisely and unpopularly. It may also be acting illegally. Republicans have hired a team of conservative lawyers, who insist the Constitution allows the legislature to name its own group of pro-Bush electors. But at least one prominent constitutional scholar disagrees.

Bruce Ackerman, a distinguished professor of law at Yale University, notes that the Constitution allows a state legislature to intervene under one, and only one, condition: when the state has failed to make a choice of its electors. In this case, he points out, Florida has not failed to make a choice. Florida did choose Bush, at least for the moment. A recount may change that choice, but not eliminate it. The constitutional window for the legislature to act, therefore, no longer exists.

Legal or not, what Republican legislators are planning is simply wrong. Count all the votes in Florida, and let the people decide the winner, not a bunch of political hacks. The Florida Legislature should simply butt out.


Thursday, November 30, 2000



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