Commentary: Lessons of the Fiasco

Most Americans went to bed on the night of Dec. 12 relieved that the national trauma over who won the Presidential election five weeks earlier had finally ended. The temptation to put the mess behind us and move on is great. But that would be a mistake. Now is the time for the country to step back and take stock of the lessons learned in hopes of preventing a recurrence of the Great Florida Standoff of 2000.

While future Presidential races may never again end in a virtual tie, Florida's electoral lockjaw revealed a dirty little secret: Most state voting laws and election machinery are badly in need of an overhaul.

On top of creaky machinery, Florida also lacked statewide standards to guide officials in designing and counting ballots. Election officials there have egg on their faces, but the sad truth is that most states wouldn't have performed much better. Experts figure that when most states declare a winner, there's a margin of error of 1% to 2%. Says James Davis, a Washington University political science professor: ''We owe Florida our thanks for showing just how approximate our voting system is.''

The most important lesson of this election debacle is that every state must modernize its election laws and technology. Corporations ''benchmark'' by adopting the best practices of the most advanced companies, and there's no reason states shouldn't do the same. Seven states, including Texas, that have explicit hand-count rules could be the model, says Carol A. Laham, a Washington-based election-law specialist. ''If we do nothing else but upgrade our election system, all of this will have been worth it,'' says Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Governmental Studies.

That means it's time for Congress to step in. True, a debate already is flaring over whether Congress, under the Constitution, has the power to regulate state elections. While the Founding Fathers reserved for the states the power to run elections, it did not say Congress had to remain on the sidelines. Even if it takes an emergency commission of experts, Congress must inform the states what the best voting technology is--whether that's optical scanners, computer touch-screens, the Internet, or some other system.

CARROTS. Congress also can recommend a set of guidelines on how votes are to be counted when an outcome is in doubt. States may want to come up with their own hand-count standards, but Congress should give the states the carrot--matching federal grants--to encourage them to meet at least a minimum national standard. Already, Congress is weighing several measures that would provide incentives to the states. Senators Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.) and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), for example, would provide $100 million to states to study ballot-box technology, hire and train pollworkers, and improve voting procedures.

But Congress must act quickly--the country can't afford to wait a year or two. And lawmakers could go further by providing immediate funds to states with financially strapped counties that can't afford to replace ancient punch-card machines. A federal investigation may yet show that a disproportionate number of minority votes in Miami-Dade County were tossed out because of inadequate equipment in poorer precincts. Indeed, the U.S. Supreme Court is almost inviting civil-rights activists to sue states, on equal protection grounds, that fail to update voting methods. ''The country simply can never have another election without better technology,'' declares Torricelli.

In the end, it may not be possible to avoid court entanglements when elections rest on a few hundred votes. But by getting rid of obsolete technology and establishing clear guidelines on when a vote is a vote, ''we can make it less necessary to go to the courts to get answers,'' says Steven E. Schier, chairman of Carleton College's political science department.

There are other important lessons beyond voting infrastructure. As a nation, we proved that we can withstand a bitter fight such as the protracted duel between George W. Bush and Al Gore. In 1960, Richard M. Nixon cited the ''national interest'' in avoiding a recount struggle over the razor-thin results that put John F. Kennedy in the Oval Office. Forty years later, we see that such legal challenges are messy affairs but that they don't permanently impair the country. The stock markets didn't crash, and the polls detected little public anxiety. ''Throughout it all, the public said: 'This is not a crisis,''' says Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. For the most part, the citizenry saw no great risk in either candidate winning the Presidency and were willing to view either outcome as legitimate. ''They were more patient than the politicians,'' Kohut adds.

Most Americans, in fact, took the crash civics lesson in stride. The election became topic No. 1 at every grocery checkout counter and espresso bar. ''There is no doubt that the average American knows a great deal more about the Electoral College, the courts, and federalism than they did a month ago,'' says A.E. ''Dick'' Howard, a University of Virginia law professor. We learned not only that every vote counts but that they can count in unexpected ways. Individual votes can determine the winner in tight elections, and they can shape other institutions. A vote for one candidate can determine who sits on the Supreme Court, which can decide who a future President will be.

Bush and Gore also learned a harsh lesson from Election 2000: If your campaign message is directed mostly to hardcore supporters, don't be surprised if the rest of the nation tunes out. As political participation has declined, the two major parties have grown dependent on ideologically driven partisans. Especially in the final weeks of the campaign, both candidates felt they had to fire up the base to spur turnout. But little more than half of all registered voters bothered to show up. Says University of Akron political science professor John C. Green: ''Both candidates made nods to the center, but they ran more of a base-oriented campaign because they couldn't find issues appealing enough to independents.'' In the end, they split the independent vote. ''You can't just split the independent vote, you have to win it,'' adds Green.

The media also need to do some soul-searching. On Nov. 7, the networks relied on incomplete exit-polling data to pronounce Gore the winner of Florida's popular vote--only to retract that hours later. Then the nets declared Bush the victor, only to retract that, too. And by projecting results before the polls closed in Florida's Panhandle, they may have discouraged voting.

The ratings-driven media must realize that viewers want correct information--even if it comes a few hours later--not early information that turns out to be wrong and that could affect the outcome of an election. On Dec. 12, more than a few court reporters rushed in front of the cameras, the U.S. Supreme Court's opinion in their shaking hands, without giving themselves a chance to digest what the court had said. ''They didn't learn the lesson of election night,'' says Stephen Gillers, a New York University law professor, ''which is to wait and get it right.''

There is an important message for President-elect Bush, too. Voters split down the middle among two less-than-mesmerizing candidates. That should not be interpreted as a symbol of an angry and polarized nation. Says Leon E. Panetta, Clinton's former White House chief of staff: ''Don't misread this election by thinking there are deep differences. The American people want leadership from the center.''

By Paula Dwyer
With Amy Borrus, Howard Gleckman, and Dan Carney in Washington

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