Lawsuits here, lawsuits there -- legal mischief everywhere

By Aaron Lukas
web posted November 20, 2000

It was fun for a while, but this election is finally getting old. Some phrases I'm sick of: "Cliffhanger 2000," "see, every vote does count," and, of course, "Gore campaign sues (fill in the blank)."

Yet this electoral brouhaha still provides a few entertaining moments. How sweet, for example, to watch Mr. Internet explaining to a weary nation that "real live hu-mons must examine every ballot." Can't trust them new-fangled computer whatchamagizmos; no sir, they make mistakes (and are inconveniently non-partisan, notes Bush spokesman James "consigliere" Baker). And is it just me, or does George Stephanopolous have an unwholesome obsession with dimpled chads?

Gore offered his homespun technophobia during a carefully-timed-meaning it interrupted the good TV shows-speech on November 15. His remarks were supposedly an olive branch to Gov. Bush, but it wasn't immediately obvious what the Vice President was willing to give up. He promised to drop any further legal action, but only if he gets the hand counts he's suing for in the first place. In other words, "Give me what I want and I won't sue you." Substitute "bomb" for "sue" and you've got a page straight out of the Madeline Albright negotiating handbook.

Not surprisingly, Bush rejected Gore's terms. That leaves anxious political junkies with only lawsuits and more lawsuits to follow: one brought by team Bush, 12 and counting from the Gore justice squad. There are more briefs changing hands in Florida than at a Fruit-of-the-Loom convention. Then there's professional muckraker Jesse Jackson, looking every inch the buffoon that he is, screaming about racially-motivated disenfranchisement that no one, not even Democrats, takes seriously.

Here's my scorecard: Gore is suing the Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris (twice), the state election commission, Miami-Dade County, Palm Beach County (twice), Broward County, the local Elks chapter, two dogs that growled at voters outside a polling station in Volusia County, and everyone who voted for Nader. Bush, meanwhile, has asked a federal appeals court to halt the hand counting of ballots in Florida. I'm not certain, but there may be a pattern here.

Litigating one's way into the White House is a perilous strategy. According to a Harris Poll of 117 000 voters released on November 15, nearly three of every four voters said they don't want the loser to mount a legal challenge. That sentiment seems to favor Bush: by a margin of 51 per cent to 40 per cent, respondents said Bush "should be the next president of the United States," based on what they currently know about the election. Moreover, if Gore wins Florida, 42 per cent of voters will believe the results have been arrived at fairly, while 56 per cent will believe so if Bush wins. Neither Democrats nor Republicans supported the Gore plan to hand count ballots in only four Florida counties.

The poll results confirm my own less-than-scientific observations. In a careful survey of Washington DC bars, I discovered that 3 out of 4 beer drinkers (including lefty Hill staffers) sympathize with the Bush campaign's contention that manual recounts are subjective and subject to outright fraud. Pictures of Democratic election officials holding ballots up to the light and scratching off scads of chads on previously discarded ballots only reinforced the sense that humans can't be trusted to objectively "interpret" votes. Besides, no one wants to wait another week or two for a meaningless state-wide third ballot tally. Bush won Florida and his victory was confirmed by a recount. Unless the absentee ballots shift the balance to Gore, the counting should end.

That's the position taken by Katherine Harris -- soon to be St. Katherine in the Republican lexicon -- who has rejected any ongoing recounts. I think she should go further and ignore any court decision that attempts to force manual counting. The courts may interpret Florida law, but they cannot usurp the legitimate authority of the elected official in charge of administering elections. The law gives the Secretary of State discretion to accept late tallies or not. Discretion means that Harris has a "choice" about the matter. Gore has called for greater "civility" in this contest, yet his wing-tipped warriors are only courteous to local officials who further the Vice President's quest for power; dissenters like Harris are slandered and sued.

Ideally, of course, the courts would decline any further involvement in this already ludicrously over-litigated muddle and simply let the process proceed. With a little judicial restraint and a little more luck, we can push "Cliffhanger 2000" over the edge in days.

Aaron Lukas is a writer and policy analyst living in Washington, DC. This is his first contribution to Enter Stage Right.

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