Two governors, one seat: Alabama's bind

It's no Florida-style debacle, but a few races still hang in the balance as voters' frustration grows.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Red, white, and blue banners sag out in front of the headquarters of Bob Riley's campaign for governor. Inside, election signs are turned upside down and propped against walls as a few volunteers mill aimlessly about.

Even though it appears that their candidate has won, it's hard to feel too celebratory, they say, when challenger and Democratic incumbent Gov. Don Siegelman is still contesting the race.

Welcome to recount 2002. It may not rival the Bush-Gore epic. But almost two weeks after the midterm elections, some races still haven't seen concession speeches. The issue here isn't fraud or ballot-box ineptitude of the hanging-chad variety. But a contested governor's race in Alabama and a House race in Colorado serve as reminders that in a democracy every vote counts - and needs to be counted accurately.

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For some voters, it's a frustrating indication that election reform still has a long way to go.

"I'm starting to wonder what the point of voting is," says Judy Williams, finishing a sandwich at Smokey Joe's Cafe next to Riley's headquarters. "Democracy is supposed to be the people's voice, but what it ends up to be is a court battle where a judge decides. It's no wonder people are losing confidence in the democratic process."

While residents' frustration mounts along with legal challenges, both gubernatorial candidates are acting as if they've won. They are participating in Veterans Day activities in Birmingham and comforting tornado victims in Walker County. They are giving speeches and talking about the state's future.

It's strange, but it's not unlike what has occurred elsewhere following midterm elections. South Dakota's Senate race was decided only Wednesday, when Rep. John Thune (R) said he would not seek a recount in his race against incumbent Sen. Tim Johnson (D). Until Thursday night, New York's 1st Congressional District seat was dangling, but after days of recounts, Felix Grucci (R) conceded the race to Timothy Bishop (D).

In addition to the Alabama governor's race, the 7th Congressional District seat in Colorado is still being contested. Currently, Republican Bob Beauprez has a 386-vote lead over Democrat Mike Feeley with about 2,000 provisional ballots still being counted. Because official results won't be released until tomorrow, both candidates showed up for orientation in Washington this week.

And beyond the contested races, two seats will be decided by run-off elections on Dec. 7: the 5th Congressional District in Louisiana and a Senate seat. Rodney Alexander (D) is up against Lee Fletcher (R) for the House seat; Democrat Mary Landrieu is squaring off with Suzanne Haik Terrell (R) for the Senate seat.

And Hawaii is holding a special election Jan. 4 to choose a replacement for the late Democratic Rep. Patsy Mink, who died Sept. 28, but won posthumously on the November ballot.

While other states have rushed to settle elections, Alabama, in true Southern tradition, is taking its own sweet time. The state's last disputed election - a 1994 race for chief justice of the Supreme Court - took a year to settle and cost taxpayers a bundle.

"I hope it will be settled by Inauguration Day, but what do I know? I'm supposed to be on the beach in Mexico right now," says Pepper Bryars, a spokesman for Mr. Riley. "But I'll tell you this: Every day that this recount effort progresses, Don Siegelman loses more of the 49 percent of the people that voted for him. Things like this sour people."

THE trouble began election night when early results showed Governor Siegelman leading. He claimed victory, but Riley jumped ahead when Baldwin County officials reduced Siegelman's total by nearly 7,000 votes, saying a computer glitch overstated his lead.

When all 67 counties certified their results, Siegelman trailed by 3,117 votes. Alabama is one of many states that does not require a recount when votes are that close, so Siegelman supporters filed recount petitions in each county. Later that week, state Attorney General Bill Pryor - a Republican - stopped those petitions, claiming state law requires votes stay sealed except in limited circumstances.

But a few counties went ahead with recounts. On Thursday, Riley asked the state supreme court to block recounts; oral arguments are set to start Nov. 21. And Siegelman may seek a court order to open the ballots or filing an election contest with the Legislature, which would require calling a special session.

"The thing that shocks me the most is the conduct of the attorney general," says Sam Webb, a political historian at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. "He has been blatantly partisan in trying to use the law to subvert what really should be an automatic recount."

Although Alabama has one of the most progressive, fraud-free voting systems in the nation, Dr. Webb says this election proves that errors are still too common: "The most basic thing in a democracy is clean elections, and we have yet to solve this problem."

But editorials in The Birmingham News contend that there have been no allegations of voter fraud or widespread abuse at polls. In fact, they say, the system here - the optical scanner - is one of the simplest to use.

"This race, despite an election night snafu in Baldwin County, in no way mirrors the 2000 presidential race in Florida except for its closeness," said one Birmingham News editorial last week. "There are no allegations of legitimate voters being turned away from the polls, of hanging or dimpled chads that kept ballots from being counted, of confusing butterfly ballots ... Quite simply, as close as the vote total was, there's no reason to believe Siegelman got more legal votes for governor than did Bob Riley."

Justice was served, the paper contends, and Siegelman should bow out gracefully. For his part, Siegelman says he simply wants to know who really won and is hearing from people around the state who also want a recount.

But it's not just the Alabama candidates or residents who have stakes in the outcome.

If Riley wins, he'll become the state's first Republican governor since Reconstruction. And even more important to the GOP nationally, a victory here will mean the party will hold 26 governor's mansions, compared to the Democrats' 24. That would make for an unprecedented display of power, with Republicans controlling the White House, both branches of Congress, and a majority of the governors' seats.

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