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Let's Elect by Counting, Not Spinning or Suing

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Gore should take a lesson from Nixon

Over the past hundred years, Americans have elected 13 Republican Administrations and 12 Democratic ones. Power could not be more evenly divided. American presidential elections are essentially a flip of the coin. This time the coin landed on its edge.

The system was never designed for such a fluke. The last time it happened--in 1876--the deadlock was resolved by a corrupt deal that ended Reconstruction. The closest we have come to the edge in recent years was 1960, when Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago was credibly accused of widespread fraud and corruption in throwing Illinois to John Kennedy.

How rich that Daley's son, Gore campaign manager Bill Daley, should now stand before the cameras decrying an unfair election outcome. Richer still that Gore should now be counseled to take a lesson in statesmanship from Richard Nixon, who conceded the 1960 election rather than go to court and inflict incalculable damage on the stability and legitimacy of our presidential system.

Gore's grounds for action are far weaker than Nixon's. After all, there have been no serious charges of Republican misconduct, just voter confusion over a ballot--the "butterfly" ballot (in use, by the way, in Daley's Cook County)--designed and approved by Democratic Party officials.

"Democrats hoping to tilt Florida to Al Gore," reported the Associated Press on Nov. 10, "scoured the state for examples of alleged election irregularities." Hence the parade of Gore supporters eager to testify on camera to their inability to read a ballot. Hence the sit-ins and demonstrations, the legal action and partisan pressure--in essence, the postelection election campaign. Such maneuvers, intended to alter the result of an election after the balloting, are the kind of spectacle one expects in a banana republic. Win or lose, Gore's threats of protracted political and legal action to overturn unfavorable results constitutes a reckless endangerment of the American constitutional system.

In a system as durable but delicate as America's, elections are determined by counting, not spinning or suing. Legitimacy and social peace are maintained not just by law but also by convention. The understanding we share is that all balloting is flawed. When 100 million people go to the polls, there will inevitably be errors, omissions, confusions. But we all agree--in advance--to accept the verdict of the numbers (barring fraud, of course) because we assume that, first, in the end the irregularities will cancel themselves out, and that, second, once the challenges begin, the challenges will never end.

The Democrats seem prepared to order revotes and recounts in Democratic counties of Florida until the numbers come out right. Yes, there were 19,000 double-punched ballots in Democratic Palm Beach. But there were many times that many spoiled ballots statewide. Are we now going to settle elections based on the intent of the voter rather than his action? What next? Follow every election with voter interviews to determine how many wish to repunch their ballots?

For more than 200 years, we have agreed that a ballot cast settles the issue. However the final, authorized vote comes out in Florida, the candidate with the lower number should do a Nixon: pick up the phone and show some grace.


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Cover Date: November 20, 2000

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