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Nation can take either outcome

Posted: Monday, November 13, 2000

The majority does not always rule.

Every vote does not always count.

Life is not always fair.

No wonder so many Americans hate politics. Judging by the howls and moans I hear on the radio and TV talk shows, a surprising number of voters on Election Day actually thought they were voting for president.

That's what you get for snoozing through civics class, folks. You don't vote for president. You vote for electors in each state who will cast that state's votes for president in December.

Sure, it's a clumsy, inefficient political dinosaur left over from a past era. But it's in the Constitution. We're a nation of laws, and ignorance of the Electoral College is no excuse. Rules are rules, and you don't change them in the middle of the game.

I would feel the same way if it were Vice President Al Gore who ended Election Night with fewer popular votes and more electoral votes than Texas Gov. George W. Bush. But when the television networks took back their prediction of a Florida victory for Gore, the tables turned. Gore won the most popular votes and the Electoral College was in doubt, but with the edge to Bush.

Then came allegations of election irregularities. There were reports of lost ballots, discarded ballots and confusing ballots, particularly in Palm Beach County, where many Gore supporters were saying they voted for Pat Buchanan by mistake.

William Daley, Gore's campaign chairman, called for the courts to prevent "an injustice unparalleled in our history."

Actually, history is full of stories of presidential elections in which fraud, corruption and sheer clumsiness played a significant role. For parallels, Daley might look no farther than his father, the late Mayor Richard J. Daley, whom Republicans accuse of stealing John F. Kennedy's 1960 victory away from Richard M. Nixon.

Bush people had such shenanigans in mind when they threatened to counter a Gore court fight with new recount demands of their own. Possible targets included Missouri, where a judge kept the polls open late in St. Louis, a predominantly Democratic pocket in that mostly Republican state.

"We can't just keep counting votes until Al Gore likes the outcome," say the Bush folks. No, but we can keep counting votes as long as the law allows. The question Gore must ask himself is, does he want to?

After all, Gore could win by losing. No matter who wins this current election battle, it will be hard for him to govern. Congress is divided almost evenly down the middle. Gridlock looms. The economic boom may be nearing an end.

An air of illegitimacy hangs over Bush's head if he becomes president without winning the popular vote and with cries of fraud hanging over his election. Similar cries will hang over Gore's head if he wins in court after a long, painful political war.

Nixon showed how to win by losing in 1960 when he conceded graciously, if through clenched teeth, even while his supporters waged recounts or "field check" investigations in about a dozen states for more than a month. By appearing to take the high road, Nixon set himself up to win eight years later.

Or Gore could lose by winning. If victory comes narrowly after a pitched legal battle, he will be called a "sore winner" or worse for risking a national political war. So, if the vote recount and absentee ballots fail to award a clear victory to Gore, I think he should step aside, concede graciously if painfully and spare the nation the agony of a prolonged court fight.

Sometimes you have to pick your battles. Sometimes you back off to survive, grow and fight more effectively on another day. This country can endure four years of Bush or Gore.

As the late Chicago ward boss William "Big Bill" Dawson used to tell his precinct captains, "Don't get mad, get smart."

That's right. Then maybe someday you can get even!

(C)2000 The Chicago Tribune



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