Bollixing up the Ballot

Posted: Jun 11, 2005 12:00 AM

Students of history, unite. If you?re interested in understanding what might have happened in Florida in 2000, you need only look at Washington today.

That?s the state of Washington, where on June 6 a judge officially declared Democrat Christine Gregoire should remain as governor. There have been questions since Election Day, when the initial count showed Gregoire had lost to Republican Dino Rossi by 261 votes.

The race was so close that a machine recount was needed, and it too declared Rossi the winner by a mere 42 votes. Finally, in the spirit of ?counting every vote,? the state held a hand recount of all the ballots, and the ?correct? outcome was obtained: Democrat Gregoire was declared the winner by 129 votes.

Now, some of us would say the score there was 2-1 -- Rossi had won two counts and Gregoire had won only one. If he didn?t get to take office, he should at least have received another recount, if not a new vote. Nope. Once the Democrat pulled ahead, Washingtonians were told it was time to move on. ?The election is over,? Gregoire announced in December. ?I hope we can move forward, unite our state and address the problems our state is facing.?

One problem the state faced, and presumably will face again, is voter fraud. Even in dismissing Rossi?s lawsuit, the judge admitted there were at least 1,678 illegal ballots cast -- more than enough to flip the outcome in either direction. But, ?Unless an election is clearly invalid, when the people have spoken their verdict should not be disturbed by the courts,? Superior Court Judge John Bridges wrote.

That ignores that the issue here wasn?t whether or not the people had spoken -- they had. What?s in dispute is what they said, and there?s certainly reason to believe that a slim majority supported Rossi. But we?ll never know. So, Gregoire says, it?s time to put the past behind us. ?I want the state of Washington to be served by a full-time governor who is not being distracted by anything other than serving the citizens,? she declared.

All this presents an unpleasant parallel to a more famous standoff: Florida 2000.

Al Gore lost the initial count and the recount. So of course he demanded a re-recount -- in four specific counties where he expected to pick up votes. It dragged on for weeks, with both sides filing legal briefs and various judges and courts issuing various rulings -- just as we?ve seen this year in Washington state.

But here?s where the similarity breaks down. In 2000, the Supreme Court eventually stepped in to stop the counting. That ensured that George Bush, who had never trailed, would become president. Of course, if Gore had ever managed to eke out a lead, no matter how small, we would no doubt have been told it was time to stop all the recounting, accept the decision and ?move on.?

At one point Tom Daschle tried to make that happen when he flew down to Florida and declared that Gore had actually won the state by nine votes. Sadly, Americans weren?t willing to simply accept the word of the Senate minority leader, so we went with actual vote tallies instead.

In retrospect, the oddest thing about Florida isn?t that Bush won. It?s that the election was so close in the first place.

In the year 2000, Republicans held 15 of Florida?s 23 seats in the House of Representatives, and the GOP controlled both houses of the state legislature. Plus, the state?s popular governor was a Republican, and the brother of his party?s presidential candidate. In order for Gore to have won, he?d have to have benefited from an awful lot of ticket splitting. Not impossible, but unlikely.

And it?s even more unlikely if you consider what happened next. Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe vowed to focus on the state. ?We will prove there is victory after denial, democracy after Florida,? he declared. His top goal, he said, was to defeat Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in 2002. Instead, Jeb cruised to re-election.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Katherine Harris -- much maligned in the press for wearing too much makeup and being a Bush stooge -- ran for the House of Representatives and won. This year, having been re-elected in 2004, she?ll run for the U.S. Senate. Bet she?ll win that, too. And of course, President Bush easily carried Florida in 2004.

?Gov.? Gregoire will have to face voters again in 2008. The result then will be illuminating, especially if voters make her a one-termer.