Posted on November 27, 2000 in Washington Watch

As I crossed Pennsylvania Avenue on my way to the White House this afternoon, I noticed a half-dozen construction trailers set up in Lafayette Park. They are there to prepare the site for the quadrennial Presidential inauguration parade that will take place in just two months.

Even in these abnormal times, the presence of the construction crews are a sign of normality. We still do not know who the next president will be, but we know that we will have one.

Because this election has been so close, a magnifying glass has unfortunately exposed many of the flaws that are inherent in our all too human democracy. If the election day results had been more decisive, the transition would have been a smooth one. As it is, the world now knows that: vote counting machines make errors; that humans who count votes make errors; that partisan politicians make partisan judgments.

At this point, Al Gore is still leading in the popular vote. He is ahead by over 300,000 votes—a mere three-tenths of one percent of the over 100 million total votes cast. Gore also leads in the total electoral votes decided—267 to 246 for George W. Bush. However, because the U.S. system is based on electoral votes (the winner must capture more than one-half of the 538 or 270), the State of Florida’s 25 electoral votes are needed by Gore or Bush to put them over the top.

With Bush unofficially leading in Florida by a mere 930 votes of the over six million votes cast, the Gore campaign is demanding their legal rights to a recount in three counties where tests have shown that the voting machines, in fact, undercounted tens of thousands of votes.

Fearing that these undercounted votes may swing toward Gore, Bush’s camp sought a court order to block a hand count. In a no less partisan move, Gore’s team, fearing that late arriving absentee ballots might have added to Bush’s total, made an effort to have them thrown out based on a technicality.

Both sides have repeatedly taken these and other issues to court—both state and federal—and more such legal actions are pending.

Of course, the matter could end quickly, if one or the other candidate were to decide to concede the election. That may still happen, but as I write on the day after the U.S. holiday of Thanksgiving, it appears that both camps remain committed to exhaust the legal and political avenues still available to them.

Even if, as the Florida Supreme Court has ruled, a final certification of Florida’s vote should take place on Monday, November 27, at 9:00 a.m., it is not certain that the wrangling will end there. Since that decision, the Bush campaign has filed two different appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court and separate suit in courts in 13 of Florida’s 67 counties. Gore’s campaign has also filed suits of their own to force counties that have stopped their recounts to restart them and have them completed before the Monday deadline.

If the Monday count goes against Bush, Republicans, who control both of Florida’s legislative bodies, the Senate and House of Representatives, have discussed plans to overturn the verdict and name Bush the winner.

And so it continues. And so the nation waits and watches.

It may be ironic but it appears that this post-election drama has attracted more public attention than the election itself. Several news networks have added special programs to cover the Florida developments; others have given themselves over to 24-hour coverage. In the process, the public has been given an in-depth education about election procedures and election laws.

This education and the national discussion it has generated may create pressure on the U.S., Congress to review and reform federal election law when Congress reconvenes in January of 2001.

Several problems have been exposed that require attention. First and foremost, of course, will be pressure to end the “electoral college” system and replace it with an election by popular vote. There are also calls to create a uniform ballot and system of counting ballots in presidential contests. Currently each state determines its own procedures and within each state rules may vary from county to county.

There will also be pressure for Congress to look at how the television networks cover elections and whether it is appropriate for them to announce outcomes, based on estimates, before actual voting has been completed.

Given the debacle of election 2000, there clearly is strong public support for reforms such as these to be enacted. Many members of Congress have announced that they will be introducing legislation when the new session begins. Nevertheless, cynics caution that there was the same public outrage with campaign finance abuse in 1996 and the same congressional resolve to reform the system in 1997. Partisan bickering, however, stood in the way of any agreement. The result was that the 2000 elections were the costliest in history. Estimates are that over $3 billion were spent in the Presidential and Congressional races combined. That represents a dramatic increase over the $2 billion spent in 1996.

In addition to this matter of election reform, there is also, speculation as to how the next President will relate to Congress and vice versa. Public opinion polls show that the overwhelming majority is ready to accept either Bush or Gore and support their presidency. Contrary to what was assumed, the individual who emerges from this ordeal may be given more support than he would otherwise receive and precisely because the public will want to put closure on the divisiveness of the election. (Although it appears that Republican voters are more anti-Gore than Democratic voters are anti-Bush.)

It is not certain that the Congress will be so magnanimous. The wounds from the nightmare of impeachment are still fresh. They have only been exacerbated by this Florida recount battle.

However, there is a lesson in this election that, if learned, can prove helpful to the next president. Despite the deep philosophical divide that separates Republicans and Democrats on issues of governance and budget, most Americans, it appears, want domestic tranquility and continued prosperity. The closeness of this election, and the fact that 80% of the public would support the presidency of either of the two men as president, attests to the fact that, despite the vocal anger of a minority on each side, the majority wants less partisanship and more bipartisan partnership in government.

If the next president reaches out to the candidate he has defeated and to his opposing party and takes concrete steps to bring them into a partnership with his administration, the American people will respond enthusiastically. Going over the heads of those who may seek to replay this election and stoke the coals of bitterness could give the next President a surprisingly strong mandate and prove that the ordeal of election 2000, instead of weakening American democracy, made it stronger.

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