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Legitimacy Of The Election At Stake As Contest Process Begins In Florida
by Dana Chasin

In the three weeks since the Presidential election, Americans have watched as it has lurched toward its belated conclusion. Almost all parties and institutions involved – from the Gore and Bush campaigns, to the Florida Department of State, to the Florida Supreme Court and even the U.S. Supreme Court – have taken what they perceive as necessary risks in pursuit of a full, fair, and universally acceptable final count of the vote in Florida and award of the state’s 25 electoral votes.

But some unnecessary risks have also been taken, foremost by the Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties canvassing boards, which require review and remedy if the American public is to regard the results from Florida and the President elected thereby as legitimate.

These decisions all but guaranteed that the statewide vote totals submitted to Florida’s Secretary of State for certification would be incomplete and, therefore, viewed by many as arbitrary and illegitimate. The vote totals submitted by these two counties, taken together, involve close to one million votes, about 15 percent of the statewide vote in Florida. In no other counties, not even in the 65 other Florida counties combined, do the certified vote counts come close to distorting the will of the people as much as in Palm Beach and Miami-Dade.

As a result, the biggest risk now is that Americans will question whether Florida’s statutory process, as interpreted by various state and Federal courts, can produce a full and accurate count – and that the public’s patience will run out before the process is concluded.

The Palm Beach canvassing board decided on Sunday to submit two vote totals to the Secretary of State, 1) the machine recount vote total of November 12 and 2) the incomplete hand recount total as of 5:00 p.m. Sunday, when the vote totals were due in Tallahassee. The Secretary of State, at her discretion, counted the former, effectively disenfranchising all those whose votes were counted by hand in a process proscribed by Florida election law and mandated by the unanimous ruling of the Florida Supreme Court last week.

This was an enormous risk, one that imperiled the legitimacy of the vote in a county with tens of thousands of citizens confused by the ballot and outraged by the outcome in Palm Beach. It strains credulity that tens of thousands of voters went to the polls there to vote in every race on the ballot except the Presidential race. Not a single one of these citizens’ votes for President has been recorded because the machine recount failed to detect any evidence of their intent.

The risk taken by the Miami-Dade county canvassing board was even greater. There, the board voted unanimously on Wednesday to halt a hand recount of the county’s 565,000 ballots -- the most of any county in Florida. The recount was about 25 percent complete when GOP protesters, gathering in the county offices where the recount was being conducted, shouted down county officials effectively disrupted and stymied the recount process there.

Asked if the protesters played any part in the board’s decision to stop the recount, canvassing board member and Miami-Dade Supervisor of Elections David Leahy said: “In part it did. I was convinced we were perceived as not being fair and open. So the decision this board was faced with made counting the ballots … impossible.”

Of all the developments in the Florida recount process, this may be the most stunning thus far. The result: only one percent of the Miami-Dade vote recounted by hand was added to the machine recount totals and submitted for certification, thereby disenfranchising as many as 10,000 voters in that county.

The Secretary of State’s certification on Sunday showed a final margin for Gov. George W. Bush of 537 votes out of close to six million cast in Florida. In Palm Beach, the hand recount process numbers, if certified, would have given Vice President Gore an additional 215 net votes. In Miami-Dade, the barely 25 percent-completed hand recount numbers – not submitted for certification -- yielded a net gain for Gore of 157 votes. An extrapolation from these subtotals indicates that the vote counts submitted by these two counties deprived Gore of about 900 votes, more than enough to overcome Bush’s margin.

The distortions in Palm Beach and Miami-Dade leave Vice President Gore no choice but to contest the certified results. The statutorily-sanctioned contest process represents the only hope of legitimate counts in these counties – and an acceptable final determination of the winner of the election. Under these circumstances, a legal contest of the election in Palm Beach and Miami-Dade is the one last risk worth running in order to determine the true will of the people and the winner of the election.

But the risk here is daunting. Americans may tire of this unresolved drama and come to regard the result of the legal contest and the President that emerges from it as less than legitimate.

It is a risk almost certain to become a reality if the contest is not concluded by December 12, the date by which Federal law requires the states to approve their Electoral College delegations. If the contest is not completed as that date approaches, Florida’s Republican-controlled legislature, fearing that Florida will have no delegation to represent the state when the electoral college convenes and votes on December 18, will be tempted to act on its own and choose the state’s 25 electors.

Should that happen, the permutations of legal and political possible outcomes are manifold. But none of these involves a process or result likely to satisfy the nation’s 100 million voters, who reasonably expected that they – not any legislature or any court – would decide the election.

So, once again, Vice President Gore faces a race against time. This time, however, he is in a fight not just to win the Presidency, but perhaps also to preserve the legitimacy of the office itself, until the next election.

DANA CHASIN is President of the Empire State Democratic Initiative (ESDI), a statewide membership organization providing opportunities to younger citizens of New York State to participate in the political process.