The rules of the game

Posted: Nov 23, 2000 12:00 AM

Vice President Al Gore stands before us, dishonored and self-indicted by the sanctimonious rhetoric he uses to mask his naked drive for power. If the vice president himself cares only about "our democracy" and that "every vote counts," why isn't he in court right now, insisting that the signed ballots of military voters be counted? And if hand recounts are the only way to make sure every vote counts, why didn't the Gore campaign insist to the Florida Supreme Court that every county, not just three heavily Democratic counties, recount its votes? Could VP Gore make his power grab any clearer, please?

Even the Florida Supreme Court's bizarre intervention in this electoral process may not be enough to get Gore what he desperately seeks: a vote count, any vote count, no matter how grossly, obviously partisan and unfair, in which he appears to win. By late Wednesday, his campaign manager, William "The Campaign Continues!" Daley, was even refusing to say Gore would accept the results of any hand count filed by the Supreme Court's newly redrawn deadline of 5 p.m. Sunday. How long are otherwise responsible Democrats going to support Gore's effort to win through litigation what he lost at the ballot box?

The Florida Supreme Court's ruling was a marvel to behold. The larger issue was the court's resolute refusal to understand that elections have to be run by rules, and those rules need to be the same ones that were established before the votes are counted, before partisan passions run high, distorting common sense and fair play. The court piously declared "the will of the people, not a hyper-technical reliance upon statutory provisions, should be our guiding principle."

But what the court failed to understand is how strong and powerful an interest American voters have in elections that are run by impartial rules, understood by all parties before the election. To change the standards for vote-counting in mid-election, in a way guaranteed to drive up the vote total for one party, is not fair, nor free, nor in the interests of the voters who, as Bush correctly pointed out in his response, will be disenfranchised, their power replaced by the power of local party officials, colluding with judicial elites, to manipulate vote counts. "The effect of the court's opinion will be that voters' votes are being evaluated differently in different parts of Florida," Bush said. "Some votes that were cast legitimately may be offset by votes that were not."

What were the rules, pre-Gore, that both sides understood to govern the counting of ballots in such close elections? The best way to determine that, from afar, is to see what people said about "hanging chads" and "manual recounts" before the election.

In Miami-Dade County, for example, Keyla Martinez, who narrowly lost a race for county commissioner, took issue with the way voting machines fail to count "hanging chads." Courts rebuffed her efforts to force a hand recount. In a Sept. 17 Miami Herald story about that election, David Leahy, Miami-Dade elections supervisor, argued against counting improperly cast ballots: "If people don't vote properly on any voting system that has ever been invented, their votes won't count," Leahy said. "On the old voting machine, if you didn't pull the lever, the machine didn't count it. They don't make voting systems that are human-being proof."

Leahy's comments underscore the irony that the same people who claim human voters are fallible want to simultaneously claim human vote counters are infallible. There is indeed human error in this election, like every election. But the most monumental was Gore's decision to cast us into this lawsuit soup to begin with.