WASHINGTON — The Florida Supreme Court held that there had been misconduct in the election but not sufficient evidence that it had changed the outcome to warrant a new election.
Easy now. I'm talking about 1998 and the re-election of Bob Vogel as sheriff of Volusia County after charges of mishandled absentee ballots. One could also cite the appeals-court reinstatement of Joe Carollo as mayor of Miami in 1998 after he had been ousted for fraud in his election.
The point is that irregularities at the ballot box have long been a melancholy and casually accepted fact of life in American elections. They have risen to crisis level now only because of the closeness of the presidential election and the high stakes involved.
Americans have tended to treat irregularities and even voting fraud with indulgent humor. New York's 19th century Boss Tweed said, "As long as I can count the votes, what are you going to do about it?" A number of US politicians are supposed to have said, "Vote early, and often."
Louisiana's late Gov. Earl Long said, "When I die, I want to be buried in St. Martins Parish [Louisiana] so I can remain politically active."
US electoral history has been pockmarked with stories of votes from the graveyard or bought with "walking around money," votes undercounted, votes overcounted, boxes of ballots lost. Allegations of fraud in presidential elections date back to 1800.
At a recent White House commemorative ceremony, former President Jimmy Carter, who has monitored many elections abroad, said, "I've seen troubled elections. This is an unaccustomed event for Americans. But ... our system will prevail.... We will survive this present uncertainty."
Well, maybe. But now that we've seen into what turmoil our sloppy electoral system can plunge us, it's time to think of a comprehensive election reform, changing antique procedures, incomprehensible ballots, and incompetent monitors.
It's a little irritating to hear the visiting chairman of the Russian Election Commission, Aleksandr Veshnyakov, saying, "I was under the impression such things cannot happen here."
Speaking of election reform, Hillary Clinton hasn't even been sworn in as senator yet and already she wants to change the Constitution. She intends to cosponsor an amendment that would provide for the direct election of the president and vice president.
One can empathize, knowing that without our Electoral College system, Al Gore and Joe Lieberman would have spent last weekend celebrating. But maybe this is a good time to reflect on how we got the system that enables a bunch of politicians to frustrate the will of the majority.
Our Founding Fathers designed the Electoral College, giving disproportionate weight to small states for the reason that they designed the US Senate with two votes for every state, large and small. It was to put a rein on the passions of the multitude, to keep majorities under control. The Electoral College was supposed to be a group of wise men who did not necessarily have to heed the wishes of the majority.
Some strange things happen now as they did then. In 1800, the Democratic-Republican electors gave an equal number of votes to Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, and the House of Representatives had to resolve the tie (in favor of Jefferson, of course).
Something like that happened in 1824, when the Electoral College found itself in a four-way deadlock and the House of Representatives settled on John Quincy Adams.
In 1876, the electors delivered two sets of votes, one for Samuel Tilden, the other for Rutherford B. Hayes, and it took a congressional commission finally to give the presidency to Hayes. He became popularly known as "Rutherfraud."
In most states, electors don't have to follow orders and can vote as they please. For example, in 1960, in the tight race between Nixon and Kennedy, 15 Southern electors spurned the two tickets and voted for the ultraconservative Sen. Harry F. Byrd of Virginia.
Mostly electors are party loyalists, but they can break ranks. Matt Miller of the Annenberg Public Policy Center in Philadelphia suggests a way out of the Bush-Gore impasse: Gore, instead of pursuing every legal option, should appeal to the Republican electors to honor the will of the majority and cast their votes for him on Dec. 18.
That might be better than starting a campaign for repeal of the Electoral College provision of the Constitution, which would probably go the way of most proposed constitutional amendments and, in any event, would not help the current situation.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society