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Conservative Commentator Says Bush Stole the Election

BOB EDWARDS, host: This isn't the first time an American presidential election hinges on the outcome of one state, or for the returns to be fiercely contested. Over the next few days, MORNING EDITION will have varying opinions on the outcome of the presidential election. Commentator Kevin Phillips has one. He says the 2000 election is not the first time Republicans have laid a claim on Florida.

KEVIN PHILLIPS: Many people remember that the Democrats may have stolen Illinois back in the 1960 presidential election. What's insufficiently understood is the parallel Republican history in Florida, the state they stole in the bitterly contested election of 1876. Some of this may sound oddly familiar. Back then, South Carolina, Louisiana and Florida were at issue, and if the Republicans could bank all of the electors in all three contested states, they could win the presidency by just one all-important electoral vote.

The Democratic nominee, Samuel Tilden, had carried the nationwide popular vote by some 250,000, but could still lose in the Electoral College. The ultimate decisionmaking instrument that year was a bipartisan 15-member commission, including five Supreme Court justices, two staunch Democrats, two staunch Republicans and an independent Republican justice, Joseph P. Bradley. Of the three states at issue, historians agree that South Carolina and Louisiana may have gone for the GOP. But Florida clearly had gone Democratic.

C. Vann Woodward, the famous Southern historian, years ago published research confirming that Democrat Tilden had actually won Florida and should have won the electoral vote by 188 to 181. But Justice Bradley, who had pledged to be impartial, voted with the Republicans to refuse to go behind the Florida returns and examine the actual votes. He also joined them in refusing to consider the other irregularities. The result was an 8-to-7 party-line vote to award all three states to the Republican, Rutherford Hayes, giving him his one electoral vote margin.

This year's involvement of the US Supreme Court on behalf of George W. Bush completes what has to be a sad parallel. The Democratic nominee, Albert Gore, won the popular vote by 300,000. Only by holding Florida for Bush through refusal to pursue irregularities or to count so-far uncounted ballots could the Republicans secure Bush the electoral votes needed for a hair-breadth victory. This time, moreover, the governor of Florida, Jeb Bush, is the brother of the GOP presidential nominee and the Republican secretary of State, who certified the dubious count, was a Florida Bush campaign co-chair.

This time, too, politics appears to have taken over the courts. The first judge in Florida to block the vote recounting, Sanders Sauls, is a good old boy conservative appointed by Florida's GOP governor, Robert Martinez. The Florida Supreme Court that ordered the recount is lopsidedly Democratic. And on the US Supreme Court, the five justices who stopped the recount to avoid embarrassing Bush and then delivered for him again last night are the court's five stalwart Republicans.

But history is likely to add to Bush's embarrassment. We can identify three situations showing a frustration of voters who sought to vote for Gore: The butterfly ballot in Palm Beach, the irregularities in Martin and Seminole counties, which frustrated Democratic absentee ballot applications, and the suppression of black voting through inaccurate lists of possible felons who could be turned away from the polls.

The most egregious situation may be in Duval County, which includes Jacksonville. This apparent black vote suppression and the refusal to count 9 percent of the vote, a higher ratio than anywhere else in the state, may have cost Gore 2,000 to 4,000 votes. It seems implausible that George W. Bush got a larger majority in Duval County in 2000 than his father did in 1988 when the elder Bush carried the state by a 900,000-vote landslide.

The Supreme Court can enjoin local officials, but it cannot enjoin election researchers or the press from searching out the truth. Stealing Florida once left only a small ripple in the history books. Stealing it twice could leave a deep and damning stain on the Republican Party.

EDWARDS: The comments of Kevin Phillips. His newest book is "The Cousins' Wars: Religion, Politics & the Triumph of Anglo-America."

Reproduced Courtesy of National Public Radio. The Kevin Phillips commentary originally aired on the December 13th "Morning Edition