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Presidential survivor



So one guy finally was kicked off the electoral island. Now all eyes turn to the lone survivor, who was able to outlast his opponent in a battle of legal attrition. But before we change the channel, let's reflect for a moment on some of the lessons learned from this trial-by-ordeal.

For starters, we learned that certain Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court believe that state legislatures, not voters, have the constitutional right to vote for president. Apparently, not only does the national popular vote not matter, but neither does the popular vote within each state. State legislatures consult "We the People" as a mere courtesy. Stuck in an 18th-century brand of law and values, our soon-to-be-Chief Justice Antonin Scalia is the foremost proponent of this radical idea, and that's kind of jarring.

We also learned that a hand recount was deemed unfair because of its impact on voters whose advantage already had been in place before the election. The U.S. Supreme Court decided that it's OK that affluent voters in precincts using optical-scanning equipment enjoy a better chance of having their votes actually counted than poor, elderly and minority voters in precincts using antiquated punch-card machines. But when it came time to hand-count ballots to overcome this pre-election advantage, the Supremes slammed shut the constitutional gates.

We learned that, despite being the world's lone remaining superpower, we were not up to the simple task of counting the ballots in our presidential election! Bewilderingly, thousands of ballots still sit in piles somewhere, having never been tallied because the antiquated voting machines, for one reason or another, could not count them. And the legal system proved to be a roadblock, rather than a guardian, to ensuring that every vote was counted.

The U.S. Supreme Court also informed us that the Florida hand-count, which sought to count a lot of black votes that were never counted originally because the punch-card voting machines malfunctioned, was actually a violation of the 14th amendment's Equal Protection Clause -- the amendment that is used to remedy racial discrimination. That certainly is an ironic interpretation.

I can hear Martin Luther King now: "I have a dream -- that the ballots of all people will be counted equally, no matter the color of their skin, or -- the types of voting machines?"

This was a cataclysmic failure of our political system all the way around -- from the courts, to election administrators, to the Florida state Legislature and U.S. Congress who never bothered to establish uniform standards for recounts, ballot design or accuracy of voting machines. We held a presidential election for the most powerful office in the world, and we blew it. The rest of the world is laughing at us, and for good reason.

Even Brazil has computer voting machines where, when the voter votes for a candidate, a picture of that candidate pops up on the screen to verify for the voter who they voted for. The optical scan machines in the white and wealthy Florida precincts also had built-in features to prevent undervotes and overvotes. This is not rocket science.

No, the brilliant minds on the U.S. Supreme Court could not figure a way out of this quagmire for us. This is truly a humbling day for American democracy and our federalist system.

About the best we can say that came out of the Supreme Court decision is that this Un-Election 2000 is finally over. At the end of the day, nobody was elected president, but one candidate finally was installed. The system spasmed and twitched, struggling to find a resolution. Instead, we found a political meltdown that eventually engulfed, not only the presidency, but even the U.S. Supreme Court.

Next time, I vote that we ask Brazilians for instructions on how to get it right.

Steven Hill is the western regional director of the Center for Voting and Democracy. He is co-author of Reflecting All of Us (Beacon Press, 1999).

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