Whoever wins Florida must be ready to unite country

Wow.

What an election.

If George W. Bush has indeed won, America will look to him as its leader for the next four years. He will deserve respect and welcome as the president. In the early hours after the election, he has acted in as calm and decent a manner as anyone could hope. The same could be said of Al Gore, as well, who still might win.

Even without a popular vote win, an electoral count victory is absolutely legitimate. The election was conducted properly and honestly under the rules established by the Constitution.

America sits in an unusual position. The election is over but we don’t know who will be the next president. The hours may be removing the lingering doubt about the recount in Florida but the situation couldn’t be any closer. We can only hope that Florida does indeed complete its recount by the end of today.

In Washington state, the results are every bit as tight. And that has national implications. With our state’s slow process for counting absentee ballots, the whole country may wait for days or even weeks to know whether Slade Gorton or Maria Cantwell won. The outcome will determine whether the Republicans have a majority in the Senate.

At the state level, vital results are also up in the air. Gov. Gary Locke won a well-deserved re-election, but the control of both houses in the Legislature won’t be known for days.

For Mr. Bush, entering the White House with a divided result between the electoral and popular votes will certainly present challenges. So too will any disputes about voting irregularities. But those situations are manageable. And Mr. Bush’s steady temperament and commitment to bipartisanship should serve him particularly well if he is president.

It must be acknowledged that the tightness of the race could lead to cancerous conspiracy theories. In fact, though, America has remarkably fair and honest voting processes. Neither party should lightly enter into an election challenge that is going to create prolonged uncertainty. No, the system isn’t perfect or foolproof. But no human undertaking ever is. That must be kept in mind when weighing whether to file any legal challenges.

The pessimistic view is that the close race shows the country is terribly divided. It is up to the leaders in Congress and the White House to make something good of the situation. But is there any good reason to be overly pessimistic about a country that is prosperous (more so than any in history), at peace, and blessed with freedoms that much of the world envies?

In Olympia, Gov. Locke and the Legislature will face somewhat similar challenges in trying to make sense of the voting results here. At least, Locke has a clear mandate. But it will take reasoned, calm decision making not just in the governor’s office but also the Legislature to face the challenges ahead. Voters clearly want stronger public education, better pay for teachers, improved transportation and some form of property tax relief. And it doesn’t take a genius to come up with something better on property tax relief than Initiative 722, which most likely will be tossed out by the courts because of the bizarre inequities it would create.

The difficult tasks ahead at the state and national level can be met. First, though, we must wait and learn who the winners are.

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