Not all lessons from Fla. fiasco were retained

November 14, 2001|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- A year and five days after the 2000 presidential election, that long-awaited re-examination of the Florida vote has confirmed that even under the review sought by Al Gore but rejected by the Supreme Court, he still would have lost to George W. Bush.

That is the bottom line of the painstaking study commissioned by eight major news organizations. At the same time, the review indicates that had Mr. Gore sought and achieved a full recounting of all ballots cast statewide, including the so-called over-votes wherein more than one preference was stated, Mr. Gore might have eked out a victory.

So if anything has been confirmed, it is that the Supreme Court is off the hook in the Democratic allegations that its 5-4 conservative majority stole the election for Mr. Bush, and that the Gore team goofed in not asking for that full recount, county by county.

The review of 175,010 ballots in 67 counties by the nonpartisan National Opinion Research Center was itself a confusion of varying yardsticks applied. Also, it made no effort to cope with the votes thrown out in such places as Palm Beach County where the notorious "butterfly" ballots had double votes cast for Mr. Gore and conservative Pat Buchanan.

The study didn't deal with either the dispute over alleged intimidation of black voters in heavily Democratic precincts, or the matter of overseas absentee ballots that missed the legal deadline but were still counted, overwhelmingly for Mr. Bush. The Gore team failed to challenge these, too.

All in all, the study supports the view that the post-election Bush team outsmarted the Gore folks. The Bush lawyers argued that "all the votes have already been recounted," which they hadn't, while the Gore team in its mantra of "count all the votes" failed to ask for just that.

It all may seem now, in the wake of the events and aftermath of Sept. 11, to be much ado about nothing. The legitimacy of Mr. Bush's presidency, after all, was resolved by the Supreme Court's ruling that gave him Florida's 25 votes in the Electoral College, and the bare majority required.

And since Sept. 11, Mr. Bush's popularity has been sky-high. When the Gallup Poll in August asked voters about a rematch between Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore, Mr. Bush was favored by only 49 percent to 48. A similar matchup after Sept. 11 showed Mr. Bush would win now, 60 percent to 36.

But the review of the Florida voting was constructive not simply in reaffirming the outcome between Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore but also in demonstrating the imperative of election procedure reform, especially in terms of ballots and voting machines used. In Florida, the state legislature has already banned the use of those punch-card ballots that brought us the dizzying dispute over torn, hanging, dimpled and pregnant chads.

What's needed now is federal legislation to aid the other states in getting rid of flawed procedures and voting equipment. The House has acted and the Senate is in the process of addressing the matter. There remains, however, one nagging problem, and that is the role of the Electoral College. Should a candidate who has won more than half a million votes than his opponent be denied the presidency, as happened to Mr. Gore? What if it had been Mr. Bush who lost while being the choice of half a million more voters?

Either way, the Electoral College is an anachronism whose folly was emphatically demonstrated in the 2000 election. But Congress has ignored the matter, except for an electoral reform bill sponsored by Republican Rep. Jim Leach of Iowa that had gone nowhere.

The smaller states cling to the Electoral College on the questionable grounds that without it no candidate would campaign in them in pursuit of their electoral votes. But the electoral votes don't have to be eliminated; the award of a "bonus" bloc of electoral votes to the national popular-vote winner sufficient to ensure his election could solve the problem.

The 2000 election marked the fourth time in our history that the popular-vote winner was denied the presidency. This time it was a Democrat, but the next time it could be a Republican. The Electoral College remains an accident waiting to happen -- again.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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