Don't forget the chads

January 10, 2001|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- In the desire to give George W. Bush the stature of the presidency that was bestowed on him by the Electoral College, if not by the nation's voters, we're being told to put the Nov. 7 election behind us.

Republican congressional leaders have called on Al Gore diehards to "get over it" and face the reality of Mr. Bush's approaching inauguration.

If that advice means accepting the winner of the electoral vote but loser of the popular vote as the legitimate president, there can be no argument -- Article II of the Constitution leaves no room for doubt on the point.

But if the GOP leaders mean the country should docilely tolerate the process and election machinery that produced that result, they are asking for a whitewash. The scheduled reviews of the Nov. 7 outcome, both in Congress and in Florida, are imperative if the country is to be spared another disgrace like the 2000 election fiasco.

It was understandable, if a bit unruly, to see members of the Congressional Black Caucus challenge from the House floor the awarding of Florida's decisive 25 electoral votes to Mr. Bush. They took advantage of the televised declaration by Mr. Gore of Mr. Bush's election to keep a spotlight on a political eyesore that badly needs doctoring.

Meanwhile, considering the vote totals, it will be wise for Mr. Bush to tread softly in claiming that the voters endorsed his main campaign proposals, starting with a $1.3 trillion tax cut.

Mr. Gore, with a popular margin of more than half a million votes, could more justifiably claim a majority favored his agenda.

If the Black Caucus protests and the various other post-mortems on the election provide an uncomfortable accompaniment to Mr. Bush's inauguration and first days in office, that is the medicine he will have to swallow to satisfy the public's need to address the woeful Nov. 7 breakdown of the election process.

The time to examine what is wrong with a political apparatus that put the country, and both presidential candidates, through the late unpleasantness is now, while voter dissatisfaction with it remains high. Public outrage generated by a particular event often cools as the event vanishes from the front pages.

I remember when, after the assassination of presidential candidate Robert Kennedy in 1968, there developed a public groundswell for strong gun control legislation. His chief active foe at the time for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Eugene McCarthy, pointedly refrained from the push, saying sober consideration of legislation should not come in the heat of highly emotional events.

Emotions cooled and nothing much came of the effort.

It is precisely when an event has forced the country to focus on a cure for a recognized national ill that Congress and other reform-minded bodies should seize the opportunity to bring about a real remedy. The scheduled hearings and other examinations of the Florida vote and the Electoral College are needed to keep the public heat on for legislative action, not so much to divine the remedies. They are pretty obvious already.

First, Congress should bankroll installation of state-of-the-art voting machines in every jurisdiction. Second, the Electoral College should be abolished by constitutional amendment, or at least reduced to a symbol that might keep the now-privileged smaller states content.

At a very minimum, the "college" itself, which never meets as a body, should be junked along with the electors, leaving only the electoral votes. The best idea I know of was dreamed up more than 20 years ago by a Twentieth Century Fund task force (on which I served) that would award a bonus of 102 electoral votes -- two for each state and the District of Columbia -- to the winner of the popular vote. That bonus would make it a near-certainty that the candidate most voters said they wanted would become president.

In the 2000 election, that didn't happen.

To keep this in mind is not to challenge the legitimacy of Mr. Bush's election. It is to argue that this is precisely the time to see to it that in 2004 and beyond, the popular will, however narrow, is not similarly thwarted.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington Bureau. His latest book is "No Way to Pick a President" (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1999).

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