Official, but not over

Posted: Monday, November 27, 2000

The following editorial appeared in today's Los Angeles Times:

What happened to the presidential election in Florida Nov. 7 will forever be part of American political lore. Voter confusion over some poorly designed ballots, insufficient pressure on styluses pressed against punch-card ballots and the inability of vote-counting machines to gauge voter intent from the now-notorious dangling or dimpled chads combined to invalidate or misdirect tens of thousands of votes. After hard-fought legal battles over which questioned votes might be counted, Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris came to her official but controversial conclusion: George W. Bush won the state by 537 votes. That would give him one more electoral vote than he needs to become the nation's 43rd president.

As with so many other things over the last three weeks, the Florida result is not the last word. Al Gore's attorneys will on Monday contest the voting results in three counties. Other suits in state courts are pending, and on Friday the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments on Bush's appeal claiming the Florida Supreme Court improperly allowed recounts past the deadline for certifying returns.

A statutory deadline looms over all these actions. States must choose their electors by Dec. 12. Florida's Republican-controlled Legislature is ready to step in if the court battles aren't resolved by then, naming its own electors to make sure that Florida's votes are not excluded from the Electoral College. Surely, though, it would be infinitely preferable to leave the last word in this complex legal process to the courts, rather than have a decision made by politicians in a hothouse partisan atmosphere where the temperature rises hourly.

The courts, thoughtfully working their way through a thicket of contradictory statutes and under great pressure, have behaved with a close attention to precedent and with no indication of anything less than responsible political impartiality. That makes all the more shabby the partisan slurs against the Florida Supreme Court that followed its order to extend the counting deadline in several counties, including Bush's memorable complaint that the court "cloaked its ruling in legalistic language."

Perfervid rhetoric has been an all too familiar bipartisan feature of the last few weeks, as a presidential campaign notable for its general civility was succeeded by a rancorous electoral dispute of escalating ugliness. The Gore campaign has been accused of outright theft for pursuing -- as has the Bush campaign -- proper legal avenues of appeal. It has been charged with manufacturing votes, with ballot tampering, with trying to stage a coup d'etat to nullify the will of the electorate. But no tanks menace the streets of Tallahassee, no pronunciamento has been issued from the vice president's residence in Washington. The only clear and shameful sign of interfering with the process came when carefully mobilized Republican activists tried to muscle their way into election board offices and disrupt the vote-recounting process.

If the surrogate spokesmen in both the Bush and Gore camps seem to have lost all sense of proportion, the American people have retained theirs. They have not been taken in by the oratorical overkill. Politicians may have shown again why they command so little trust, but the courts and what they stand for continue to be held in high esteem, despite efforts by some partisans to deny their legitimacy.

Bush and Gore, in turning to the federal and state courts, are asking the judiciary to rule on issues they have never before confronted. But they are taking the right course -- for now. At this point Americans have no real choice but to look to the courts for a fair outcome to this prolonged and dispiriting controversy.

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