Florida's ricochet

Ballot counting in Florida is back in the news. It's been five months since the presidential election and those anxious weeks of waiting. Now The Miami Herald, Knight Ridder, and USA Today have finished a review of Florida's 64,000 "undervotes" in which no vote for president was recorded.

So who won, George W. Bush or Al Gore? Well, it turns out they both did. Sort of. Well, it all depends on how you counted the votes. Or whether you counted all the votes.

We didn't really expect this to be settled finally, did we?

The study concluded that President Bush would have won the recount if the US Supreme Court hadn't stepped in. But the study also found that if hundreds of valid ballots had not been discarded contrary to Florida law, Al Gore might have won. He also could have won using the strict recount standards demanded by Republicans. The different results show just how subjective a hand recount can be - and how unexpected the partisan impact of changes to electoral rules. In the he-said, she-said world of winner-take-all politics, both sides will use these results to fire up their bases. Expect Al Gore's supporters to be particularly outraged after full analysis of the 110,000 overvotes, such as those on the infamous "butterfly ballot."

Given how politically charged this debate can be, the pessimist might think that, for all of last year's election chaos, reform will get bogged down in partisan infighting.

But the problems with our election administration highlighted in Florida are so disturbing, so correctable, and so prevalent across America that Congress faces bipartisan pressure to act. And while President Bush wants us to forget about the Florida controversy, he will fail if Republicans appear to stonewall reform.

Integrity of the vote is a nonpartisan issue that stirs many Americans, and unlike some issues, electoral snafus are not easily obscured. We have too many elections in too many places, and without better voting equipment, voter education, and voter registration, we will see more discarded ballots, broken down machines, and long lines.

Indeed, typical horserace reporting by the media should not eclipse the Herald's most significant finding: Vote-counting in Florida is a shambles. Only 8 of 67 counties could even produce for inspection the same number of undervotes as reported in the official count.

Sensible reform recommendations are already being developed by high-profile and bipartisan task forces, such as one headed by former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford. With their findings, Congress will be able to act on two clear immediate needs of the states: (1) money, to modernize election equipment and administration; and (2) incentives, for states to set uniform standards. Those opposing reform will have a hard time justifying why, for about the price spent on military defense every five days, we should not have the best election mechanics in the world by the next presidential election.

Such action indeed is essential to reassure Americans that their votes matter. Those seeking the far-reaching changes needed to restore high voter turnout also can be encouraged. Reforms being seriously discussed in states include: instant runoff voting, which ensures majority rule and gets rid of "spoiler effects" in races with three or more candidates; Election Day as a holiday; and proportional representation as an alternative to gerrymandered elections that poorly represent racial minorities and those "orphaned" major-party voters living in districts "locked up" by the other party.

The immediate question raised by Florida was control of the White House. But historians some day may recognize that that question paled beside its ultimate impact: an electoral democracy where citizens' voices are respected and their votes really count.

Rob Richie and Steven Hill are, respectively, the executive director and western regional director of the Center for Voting and Democracy. They are co-authors of 'Whose Votes Count' (Beacon Press).

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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