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Western Press Review: Eyes Riveted On Florida

Prague, 10 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The eyes of Western, and particularly American, press commentators are riveted today on the southeastern U.S. state of Florida. A recount of Tuesday's (Nov 7) vote in the state is likely to play a major role in determining who has won one of the closest presidential races in history -- Republican Texas Governor George W. Bush or Democratic Vice President Al Gore. But Gore has indicated that, whatever the results of the recount, he may challenge the Florida vote in court because of alleged irregularities in some ballots.


The New York Times, which supported Gore's candidacy, criticizes him both for the decision to go to court and its timing. The paper writes in an editorial: "Gore has escalated the atmosphere of combat surrounding the presidential election results with his decision. [It is also] worrying that Gore and a legal team led by Warren Christopher, the former secretary of state, would announce their support for a lawsuit while the mandatory recount is still going on and while seven days remain for the arrival of overseas absentee ballots." The paper adds: "It is doubly worrying that some Gore associates are using the language of constitutional crisis and talking of efforts to block or cloud the vote of the Electoral College on December 18 and of dragging out the legal battle into January."

The editorial goes on to say: "We take very seriously the fairness issues raised by the ballot confusion in [Florida's] Palm Beach County and understand the public frustration or even outrage attendant upon the possibility of having the popular will thwarted by procedural errors, especially when a presidential outcome hangs in the balance. The problem is," the paper says, "that potential remedies, such as a new election in Palm Beach County, seem politically unsound and legally questionable. The sad reality is that ballot disputes and imperfections are a feature of every election. It will poison the political atmosphere if presidential elections, in particular, come to be seen as merely a starting point for litigation."


That's decidedly not the view of Philip Heymann, a Harvard University law professor and former high official in the Clinton Administration. In a commentary for the Washington Post, he makes "the case for an [electoral] do-over." Heymann writes: "Despite all that is to be said for the values of promptness in resolving a presidential election, there must be a new vote in Palm Beach County -- a vote that might be limited to those who voted on Tuesday. A Florida statute forbids the ballot form that seems to have confused so many. Without that ballot, the results in Florida probably would have been very different."

"It is not relevant that Al Gore seems to have won the national popular vote," Heymann allows. "We must either change the [electoral college system] we have for deciding who will be president or follow [it wherever it leads.]" Rather, he stresses the "clear illegality [of the ballot and its] effect in Palm Beach County." He argues: "An extremely confusing ballot flatly violated the law that Florida enacted to prevent this confusion. In a state where the candidates are separated by hundreds of votes, thousands in an overwhelmingly Democratic district seem to have been misled by a confusing ballot form used only there -- a form that was directly forbidden by a Florida statute."

He says further: "[The best path] is to quickly order a new vote in Palm Beach County using a ballot in the legally prescribed form. The Constitution requires Congress to set a single date for electors to vote, but it imposes no such requirement for the time of choosing the electors."


Also in the Washington Post, columnist Charles Krauthammer writes: "This fluke election reminds us what we ordinarily prefer not to think about: How arbitrary any democratic system ultimately is. After all," he asks, "by what principle of equity should 49.99 percent of the population yield to the will of the 50.01 percent? Why is it that adding a single vote to 50 percent defines legitimacy? Why exactly do we allow ourselves to be ruled by majorities anyway?"

Krauthammer says: "The simple answer, of course, is that it works. [Where] majorities generally have their way, people tend to be more satisfied -- and more willing to yield to authority -- than those places where majorities are thwarted. [But] it takes a presidential election that hinges on 1,800 votes out of 100 million to remind us how essentially capricious our system can be."

"There is no doubt," the commentator adds, "that the victor will now find his legitimacy questioned and his authority diminished. When the winner takes the oath of office on January 20, it will be hard to get out of one's head the fact that he did so because of a handful of ballots -- will either side ever be satisfied that there was no cheating? -- in a country equally prepared to have sworn in the other guy." He adds: "We can perhaps be mollified, if not consoled, by the fact that both Gore and Bush received far more popular support than Bill Clinton did in acceding to the presidency in 1992. Nonetheless, it is hard to escape the realization, forced on us by the Florida fiasco, of democracy's deeply rooted irrationalities."


The Chicago Tribune's editorial today is entitled "divided politics in a united nation." The paper writes: "This is not a deeply divided nation, but it is a nation that approached election day with ambivalence. Americans weren't sold on George W. Bush or Al Gore. The next president [could] step into the White House with the sobering knowledge that a majority of voters preferred someone else." It adds: "Bush and Gore right now are concentrating on the recount of votes in Florida. They should, as well, be thinking about the hurdles either one will face in governing."

The paper goes on: "If there is a mandate from Tuesday's vote, it is that neither party has a mandate much beyond this: It's time to get past the deep partisanship of the last several years. The new president would be smart to copy President Clinton, who made an overture to the opposition after his re-election by appointing a Republican, former Senator William Cohen, as secretary of defense."

The editorial also defends the U.S. electoral-college system of electing presidents, arguing: "The state-by-state, winner-take-all system has a healthy moderating influence on the nation's politics. It forces candidates to make their appeals across all regions of the country, rather than relying on huge voting pluralities in one or more regions, a tactic that would divide the country."

It goes on: "[The system also] gives minorities a greater voice in government because they are more likely to influence the outcomes in certain states. In turn, it forces major party candidates to listen to minority interests. It encourages the two-party system by awarding all electoral votes to the majority winner in each state, rather than apportioning votes among many parties. And," the editorial concludes, "it keeps campaigns from being fought only in populous urban areas, leaving the rest of the U.S. to watch on television."


The Washington Times concentrates on "the absentee [voter] factor." Its editorial says there are six million Americans living abroad, and that they "may well help give the presidency to Mr. Bush." The paper cites Michael Johnson, executive director of Republicans Abroad, who argues that up to 70 percent of Americans who cast their ballots from overseas will vote for Mr. Bush. Johnson says members of the armed services and their families -- about half of all Americans abroad -- "tend to be Republicans, as do those with business interests at stake, whether at home or abroad." Another official of Republicans Abroad, Joan Hills, says: "The overseas Americans are a solid Republican constituency'"

The editorial also allows a Democratic spokesman to express the opposite point of view. It quotes Thomas Fina, the executive director of Democrats Abroad, as saying that "overseas ballots would be overwhelmingly Democratic -- although, [the paper adds,] he declined to give an exact estimate."


Britain's weekly Economist heads its editorial "Thriller." The magazine writes: "Some will argue that such a tortured [electoral] result amounts to an indictment of American democracy -- particularly as the electoral college system may well deliver the White House to the man with the smaller share of the popular vote, Mr. Bush." It acknowledges that " there are in fact plenty of good reasons to question the way that America goes about electing its president: the current process takes far too long, it persuades far too few people to vote, and, above all, it is far too dominated by money."

"However," the editorial argues, "none of these issues is really relevant either to the thriller in Florida or to a possible split between the popular vote and the electoral college." It adds: "There is no such thing as a perfect electoral system. America's, which gives considerable leeway to the states and ensures that the candidates take smaller states seriously, has mostly stood the test of time rather well. It deserves to survive the current furor."

The weekly continues: "The real onus of this impasse will fall on whoever eventually gains the White House. Given the extreme closeness of the result, it was always going to be difficult for either man to claim that he had a great popular mandate. Now many of the winner's opponents are likely to claim that the election was stolen from them. Add in the partisan atmosphere that already exists in the wake of Bill Clinton's impeachment, not to mention the charges thrown back and forth throughout the campaign, and it is easy to imagine how things could go wrong."

"An America at war with itself," the Economist sums up, "is not just a domestic problem, but a burden that the whole world would have to shoulder. When Mr. Clinton was lying his way through the Monica Lewinsky affair, no part of foreign policy was untouched by the fact that the president was distracted by his problems at home and diminished in his authority to do things abroad. Many of the world's smoldering crises -- in the Middle East, the Balkans, West Africa, the Taiwan straits -- cry out for the engaged attention of an American president. Yet," it concludes, "it seems that the next president, whoever he may be, will be thinking most about how on earth to bolster his legitimacy and to keep control in his own country."