As Prime Minister Winston Churchill said, "Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried." The near tie in the 2000 election is giving the American people a civics lesson unprecedented in our lifetime. For pundits, pollsters, politicians and particularly the networks, there's enough humble pie to go around. I just hope they don't jump to conclusions now about exactly what instruction in civics we should draw from this experience.
Despite cries of "constitutional crisis" from some quarters, there is no constitutional crisis. Our founders wisely foresaw the kind of situation we are in now and provided a way for us to bridge partisan divisions and follow the "regular order" in tallying votes and submitting them to the Electoral College for final disposition. This process helps transcend momentary political passions and compels candidates to campaign across the nation, not just in the big urban states.
As Paul Gigot noted in his Nov. 9 column, Walter Dellinger, former Clinton solicitor-general, agrees that "There's no real legitimacy argument. If the presidency was decided by the popular vote, the two candidates would have run different races." Exactly right, and the country would be worse off. Dellinger made his observation in a pre-election memo that he stands by now, even though it may end up working to Al Gore's disadvantage.
A headline in Al Hunt's recent Wall Street Journal piece read "An Ugly Outcome, With No Mandate." Wrong on both points. The outcome for the moment is a tie, but the mandate is for bipartisanship.
We now must wait patiently until the tally is complete. Presidential scholar Steve Hess notes that Gore "has an absolute obligation to play out the string, an obligation to his party and his voters." But Hess also tells us that once the count is final, with overseas absentee ballots counted, it's time to move on with the transition.
That said, a subtle but profound change has occurred that demands more than just patience; it requires leadership by both presidential candidates. Although we continue to describe what is going on in Florida as manually recounting votes, what election officials are actually doing in four counties is manually manufacturing votes. Election commissioners are now creating votes by hand where electronic vote-counting machines twice before found no votes to be counted.
In four select heavily Democratic Florida counties, election commissions comprised of partisan political appointees are not simply sorting Gore and Bush votes manually into two separate piles and then tabulating them. They are minutely inspecting thousands of punch-card ballots in which no clean hole was punched for any presidential candidate in order to determine whether that "nonvote" occurred through a conscious decision or "operator error." Partisan election commissioners are attempting to restore "spoiled ballots" by guessing the intent of the voters and declaring their ballots pristine enough to be counted.
This process is patently unfair to Bush. No allegations of voter fraud in any of these counties have been made to warrant a manual override of the vote-counting machines. Nor is there any evidence that the unpunched error rate in these four counties exceeds the error rate expected and experienced everywhere else in the nation where this same voting technique is used. There is every reason to believe, therefore, that "errors" due to machine failure or excusable voter error also occurred in all other counties.
We also know as a statistical certainty that if nothing beyond routine machine failure and voter error is spoiling too many ballots, the vote undercount for each candidate will be proportional to the partisan makeup of the county. Therefore, manufacturing new votes only in four select heavily Democratic counties will disproportionately increase Gore's vote total.
Here's where leadership and courage are called for. Both candidates should agree that either all votes will be counted manually and the same objective standards will be applied in every county to determine whether a voter really intended to vote for a candidate or not, or no votes will be counted manually and any ballot determined by the vote-counting machine not to have a vote for president registered on it will be thrown out.
As Abraham Lincoln said on the brink of the Civil War,
"Though passion may be strained, it must not break our bonds of affection." Now is not the time for either side to stand on legalisms and public relations tricks. We have wounds to heal before we can move ahead in a spirit of common purpose, but we can, we must and we will.