Electorol College quandry unsettling for both parties

  • William Raspberry / Washington Post columnist
  • Monday, November 13, 2000 9:00pm
  • Opinion

WASHINGTON — The near-term solutions to America’s electoral quandary all have their own problems. We could — or, more precisely, Florida could — certify the result of the recount, add the overseas absentee ballots, and award the state’s 25 electoral votes to the candidate with the largest total.

But that would lock in whatever irregularities tainted the original count.

An alternative is to have another vote in Palm Beach County, where a confusing ballot almost certainly led a substantial number of voters astray. Pat Buchanan acknowledged last Thursday that most of the 3,407 votes he polled there couldn’t have been meant for him. They were clearly miscast votes intended for Al Gore, he said on NBC-TV’s "Today."

But who would be eligible for the revote? Those who could show proof that they voted on Tuesday? All eligible voters in the county? Those who attested that they were morally certain they had miscast their votes?

There would be problems in each case. It might be easy enough to show that you voted on Election Day, but how would you prove you had miscast your vote and deserved a chance to make it right? Wouldn’t a Gore supporter who knew very well he’d voted correctly be tempted by the chance to cast a second vote for the vice president? If you simply threw out all the ballots cast in the county and ordered a new vote, can’t you imagine the scene in Palm Beach as labor and civil rights organizers flooded the place, doing their best to get every eligible voter to the polls? The result would be far different than if you could find some way to let those who were confused on Tuesday set matters straight.

Or you could encourage the state’s electors to cast their ballots in accordance to what they believe to be the desires, not the recorded confusion, of the electorate. But would you really want to start down the slippery elector-knows-best slope?

There’s one more option, and, despite its manifest problems, it’s the one I’d take. After the recount has been certified, and the state’s voting commissioners are satisfied they’ve done the best they can do, give Florida’s 25 electoral votes and the presidency to whoever is ahead, even if the margin is a single popular vote. I’d rather see the next president elected through honest error and happenstance than by either fraud or contentious litigation.

That’s the near term. For the long term, the public demand seems to be for direct election of the president and vice president, ditching the Electoral College system as needlessly cumbersome and somehow undemocratic.

But that is by design. It is perfectly clear that the framers’ preference was for representation by population and geography, as a way of protecting against the tyranny of the majority. The Electoral College, in which each state has votes equal to its number of senators and representatives in the Congress, guarantees that every state will have at least some electoral voice.

In effect, the states, not the people, elect the president.

Would direct election make us better off? Or would it merely further concentrate political power in the urban areas and add to the division in the country?

I don’t know. There’s a good deal to be said for either direct election or (my preference) an Electoral College minus the winner-take-all system that awards all of a state’s electors to the candidate who takes a plurality of its popular vote.

There’ll be plenty of debate on that issue in the months ahead.

Meanwhile, it’s important to resist the temptation to apply a little political pressure here, a little litigation there and a little moral outrage everywhere in an attempt to salvage a victory from what, for one side, must be a bitter disappointment.

It’s no trouble at all to mount a moral and legal case for either Bush or Gore, particularly if the legitimacy of the Florida ballot remains in doubt.

But it would be much better if the candidates would announce that they’ll do all they can to discourage court challenges, accusations of bad faith and endless recounting, and abide by the final Florida count, no matter which way it turns out.

This country is close enough to being ripped apart as it is.

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