Life isn't fair, but what about democracy?

History shows perceived injustices in the system often lead to improvements.


It's a fundamental concept in American democracy, yet nearly half the country currently holds that, however the presidential election turns out, the count in Florida will not have been fair or accurate. That, say some observers, is a dangerous place to be - both for the man who will be president, and for the nation he will lead.

Or is it?

Another way to view the past four weeks, suggest others, is in light of their potential to move the country further along the road to a "more perfect union." The perceived injustices in Florida may ultimately improve political dialogue, force Washington into bipartisanship, and spur improvements in the voting process itself.

"This country is based on the notion that we're always a nation becoming. There is never absolute fairness in anything, but we're always seeking greater fairness," says Richard Harwood, director of the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation.

Mr. Harwood points out that the path of democracy in the United States has been strewn with injustices. What about the 1830s, when the landed gentry controlled politics? What about slavery? What about women not having the vote?

American democracy, says Harwood, "has never been about certainty. It's about striving toward something."

There's no doubt, however, that it's been somewhat of a surprise for Americans to discover what the political elite have known all along: Elections are far from clean.

The public now knows that not all votes are counted. And the man with the most votes is not necessarily the one who takes over the White House.

"A lot of people are suddenly confronting the fact that there are lots of votes that are misinterpreted, not counted, that people who register are sometimes not allowed to vote - a lot of stuff just sifts between the cracks," says Norman Ornstein, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

Fairness is a sensitive issue for Americans, who often take for granted the notion that all are equal under the law. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter received a barrage of criticism after he defended a US Supreme Court action limiting federal payments for poor women's abortions, commenting, "There are many things in life that are not fair."

But when the country can agree on how to right injustices, it seems willing to do so. That's what happened after the tight Rutherford Hayes-Samuel Tilden race in 1876, when Florida sent two slates of electoral votes - one Republican, the other Democrat - to Congress. Wanting better guidelines for such a situation next time, Congress later passed a law essentially telling states they could not change the rules for selecting electors after the election had been held. That statute came into play in arguments before the US Supreme Court last week.

Political observers such as Mr. Ornstein suggest this is another opportunity to improve the election system - to upgrade voting technology, to register voters more reliably, and perhaps even move to weekend-long voting, with a uniform poll closing time.

But when it comes to resolving the current situation, fairness is in the eye of the beholder. The Bush and Gore camps have each defined it according to which laws and procedures will carry them across the finish line.

"What is fair for one side is not necessarily fair for the other," says GOP pollster Frank Luntz. "It's like affirmative action. The person who gets the job believes it's fair. The person who's denied believes it's inherently unfair. Who's the judge?"

In this case, apparently, the courts. But will the public, in the absence of certainty in Florida, accept them as the tiebreaker?

According to a recent New York Times-CBS poll, while 47

percent of Americans believe the Florida certified vote is "not fair and accurate," a slim majority say it's a good idea for the US Supreme Court to get involved.

But even the courts, once viewed by most Americans as impartial, are no longer immune to charges of politicization.

"Everyone talks about the [political] makeup of the Florida Supreme Court, and worse yet, they're now talking about the makeup of the US Supreme Court," says Mr. Luntz. "That undermines your fairness perception from the get-go. So we are now destroying the last fair institution we have."

Some observers argue that the perceived lack of fairness in the Florida count will have serious repercussions. Washington will not forget this "war," says historian Alan Brinkley of New York's Columbia University. That could make life extremely difficult for the new president, he adds.

Indeed, it took the nation 12 years to get over the deep political divisions caused by another tight race, between John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson.

But there's an American value competing with fairness which may help in this case - and that's pragmatism, says Harwood. "The public cares deeply about fairness, but at some point, they say..., 'We need to drop it and fight the battle another day.' "

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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