U.S. political system will solve Florida mess

  • Jim Hoagland / Washington Post columnist
  • Saturday, November 18, 2000 9:00pm
  • Opinion

WASHINGTON — This is no time to rush past the obvious. In the political lifetime that has passed since Nov. 7, fundamental truths about the American political system have emerged in a new light. Those truths can now provide the American public, George W. Bush and Al Gore what they most need: A clear path out of the spiraling political and legal wars being waged in Florida.

The overriding principle in resolving the disputes about counting votes must be that even in this global era, political and legal decisions that can be taken locally should be taken locally. This is the only workable solution for a continent that is a country.

Americans should resist the rush to tinker in the confused election aftermath. The Gore-Bush deadlock exposes national attitudes toward voting, governance and power that can usefully inform necessary updating of electoral practices and machines. But these changes must be limited and deliberate, made away from the heat of the current battles.

To stay the same, things must change, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa writes in the great Italian political novel, "The Leopard". Continuity is the goal of American reform as well.

Virtually alone among the industrial democracies, the United States does not have a national election commission or a national law to prescribe the dos and don’ts of voting. That is still an enduring strength, not a fatal flaw, of American exceptionalism.

So is the Electoral College. It tempers the tyranny of the majority and the abuse of centralized power. Fierce partisan behavior acceptable in Florida’s wards should come to a halt at the Electoral College door. A nation with so few national political institutions must protect them zealously.

Yes, local authorities commit abuses. The grotesque disenfranchment of blacks long practiced in the name of states’ rights demonstrated that. But the independent American judicial system intervened to restore voting rights in that situation. Judicial intervention is certainly appropriate now in Florida, where local and state authorities have deadlocked over vote recounts.

The Bush camp has compounded its public relations problem by seeming to favor state and federal remedies over county procedures. That flies in the face of two prejudices native to Americans: They trust local authorities and, everything else being equal, they favor counting votes rather than ignoring them.

That sentiment lay behind the exquisitely balanced ruling that Circuit Judge Terry Lewis of Leon County directed to Secretary of State Katherine Harris on Tuesday:

Harris did have authority to accept or reject ballot recounts after the state deadline, Lewis held. He then warned her that arbitrary rulings would land her back in court. Even so, Harris refused the request of three local canvassing boards to have more time for recounts.

The standard of reasonableness that Lewis cited springs from the decentralization of elections. Local judges, vote counters and others have to live with their families and neighbors, no matter who goes to Washington. Their friendships as well as their reputations are on the line.

Churchill said that after trying every other conceivable option, Americans always do the right thing. American politicians are pragmatic by international standards, especially when they must be. Either Gore or Bush will be able to work with Congress — if scorched earth tactics are avoided in the Florida battle.

That means avoiding strategies that seek either the nullification of Florida’s 25 electoral votes (a Gore temptation) or tossing the election into the House of Representatives (a possible Bush response). Both candidates must protect and support the authority of the courts to decide and if necessary to oversee the counting. Most of all, the politicians should react coolly to rising cries for drastic remedies.

Elections in America are organized around the unspoken notion that only those committed to democracy will bother to vote. Scheduling the national election on a workday as winter looms makes the point. These mechanics could change: Turning Election Day into Election Weekend with uniform polling hours and a uniform presidential ballot are good recommendations for a national advisory committee to make to the states after tempers have cooled.

And the eventual winner does not have to sprinkle his Cabinet with members of the other party or form a version of a national unity government to be effective. He will in fact need a cohesive team he can trust to overcome the inevitable atmosphere of doubt he will inherit.

Let him bring his friends and neighbors, and the talent and skill to use the presidency as the bully pulpit it can be.

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