Coming together as a nation

For a number of countries in which I have worked, a battle for the presidency means flashing bayonets, bloodshed in the streets, and tanks firing on the presidential palace.

In the United States we may currently have a lamentable delay in determining who the next president is, but the Constitution is intact, there are nonviolent procedures for settling election disputes, the courts are interpreting the laws, and we are working our way through the democratic system without resort to revolution or coup.

The American people are calm, if slightly irritated. When it is all over, despite the diversity of opinion displayed by the voters in this election, we will come together as a nation, committed to democracy at home and the furtherance of freedom abroad.

This is not to say that democracy cannot, at times, seem a little disorganized. But as Winston Churchill said, it's better than all the alternatives.

There have certainly been some negatives to - and lessons from - the presidential campaign just concluded (or nearly concluded).

Surely there can be few unconcerned by the enormous amounts of money spent on campaigning. This was sometimes millions of dollars in the contest for a single congressional seat. If ever there was an argument for campaign-finance reform, this was it.

Then there is the inordinate and unnecessary length of the presidential campaign. Other democratic countries sometimes manage to take the measure of respective candidates in a few weeks. We could do without the endless months of campaigning.

The media could certainly profit from some self-examination. Our electronic brethren on election night first gave the state of Florida to Al Gore, then quickly took it back. Then a couple of hours later they gave it to George W. Bush, then took that back. The Associated Press was quick to point out that it did not call a winner in the presidential race, and newspapers like The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times similarly declined to proclaim a winner. Others, like the New York Post, ran early headlines anointing Bush, but quickly found their erroneous early editions snapped up as collectors' items auctioned for more than $700 apiece. Those of us in print cannot escape the taint from this inglorious rush to be first rather than right.

What we can do is stimulate some professional discussion about the impact of our polls, the impact of predicting outcomes before balloting has ended across the nation, and the irresponsibility of declaring winners before all votes are counted.

Individual states may have a little housecleaning to do, too. Who in Florida, for instance, came up with the idea of requiring overseas ballots to be postmarked - instead of received - by election day?

Which brings us to consideration of the now suddenly maligned Electoral College. There are moves to abandon it and decide presidential elections on the basis of the popular vote. Sounds reasonable - the man (or woman) who gets the most votes wins. But let's not be too hasty. There was wisdom in the Founding Fathers' desire to establish a system that would protect the rights of smaller states and give some heed to geography. If, instead of having to fight for delegates in each state, presidential contenders were concerned only with the popular vote total, they would concentrate on large cities and large states. The Electoral College turns every presidential election into 50 separate state elections and ensures that smaller states get their problems aired and voices heard.

Finally, if elections were determined by popular vote, a runoff would likely be required when no candidate received more than 50 percent of the vote. That opens the way to exploitation by third parties who could hold the contenders hostage in exchange for their votes. Though seemingly ponderous, the Electoral College encourages compromise and shuns extremism.

For all its flaws, the election we have undertaken got a lot of the country's business effectively accomplished. There were referendums on gun control and school vouchers and fluoridation and same-sex marriage. At the national level, as The Wall Street Journal pointed out, Mr. Bush offered a clear vision of an America with smaller national government, while Mr. Gore resisted such a downward shift.

Our next president may face a residue of public bitterness over the closeness of the result. That puts a premium on our incoming legislators to put country ahead of party. We need a president who will extend the healing hand of bipartisanship. It is time.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor of the Deseret News in Salt Lake City.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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