The bench, the ballot and fairness

Posted: Nov 22, 2000 12:00 AM
Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris may have been exercising her lawful discretion by choosing not to recognize hand-counted presidential ballots from three Democratic counties, but the Florida Supreme Court was right to stop her from certifying the election on Saturday. For a man who claims to know how to live if he loses the race, George W. Bush hasn't quite figured out how to win. Bush should not have pushed for Harris to call the race too early. If he wins the wrong way, he'll fail as president. For her part, Harris should have taken into account the appearance of a GOP secretary of state refusing to include votes recognized in what usually would be a legal accounting. Now the Florida Supreme Court is in the hot seat. Funny how the same people who condemn Harris as a partisan are oddly silent about a court with seven justices, all of whom were nominated by Democrat governors. This court faces the same challenge as Harris -- a challenge made all the more credible by its decision to stop her from certifying the vote without stopping hand counts in Democratic counties. That was a Gore-friendly decision, issued even before Goredom filed an appeal seeking that result. On "Meet the Press" yesterday, Democratic running mate Joe Lieberman said that his ticket's goal was "having every vote counted fairly and accurately." He managed to say this with a straight face, even though Team Gore is encouraging partisans to challenge military absentee ballots because the government failed to postmark them and even though Team Gore has sought a hand count only in heavily Democratic counties. Election officials rejected some 180,000 Florida ballots because voters either selected no candidate or more than one hopeful. According to the Orlando Sentinel, almost 95,000 of those ballots hailed from pro-Gore counties, more than 85,000 from pro-Bush counties. If the court determines that hand counts are valid, it would do well to call for a hand count of all counties. Otherwise, its ruling will have all the appearance of a partisan fix. Three heavily Democratic counties should not decide this election. The court also will have to address counties -- read Palm Beach and Broward --that have changed their standards as to what qualifies as a countable vote. No candidate should win because selective counties changed the rules after the game ended. And how odd that Broward County changed to a more Gore-friendly method -- recognizing indentations on ballots as a vote for a candidate -- even as it rejected more than three-quarters of its absentee ballots. The election could go either way. One party will have to swallow a bitter defeat; it shouldn't have to swallow a bitter defeat poured in a leaky cup. The court has spared the country a precipitous move by Harris that might have fueled an illegitimate call for a revote in Palm Beach County. (That Gore has refused to denounce this effort says everything you need to know about him.) Now the court should be careful not to issue a ruling that seems so loaded it will only invite more hanky panky. If the court allows three heavily Democratic districts to decide the election, it will invite legislators and electors to use loopholes in the system to change the electoral vote. If the Florida court is too heavy-handed, the legal trickstering will never end. Mini-muse: Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, found himself in the rare position of Voice of Reason when he told The New York Times: "The Bush campaign does not need to rush this and shut this down. The country is doing just fine. People are getting up and going to school every day. People are planning their Thanksgiving dinners." Could an unintended result of this election be that Americans realize that the country doesn't hinge on the presidency, but instead on the people, the system and other branches of government?