"We're in a constitutional crisis"

With Florida a tossup and the appearance that Al Gore will win the popular vote but lose the electoral vote, experts square off.

By Compiled by Salon staff

Published November 8, 2000 11:51PM (EST)

As Florida recounted ballots in the hotly contested presidential race Wednesday, it became apparent that Vice President Al Gore might win the popular vote but lose the electoral vote to George W. Bush -- making the Texas governor the next president. Meanwhile, voters in Florida's Broward and Palm Beach counties complained that a poorly designed ballot led to inadvertent votes for Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan instead of Gore. Salon canvassed political experts about the emerging crisis.

Sean Wilentz is Dayton-Stockton professor of history at Princeton University and a contributing editor to the New Republic.

We're in a constitutional crisis and it's anybody's guess as to how it's going to be resolved. Unless there can be absolute certainty that the result in Florida was not only fair and accurate, but also untainted, then we've got a problem. The question is how legitimate will the vote in Florida be?

If the Democrats litigate, then we're going to be in an extraordinary situation. Not since 1876 has the electoral vote been this close. As a result, an electoral commission was established that was headed by the Supreme Court, and they eventually cut a deal and sent the votes to a Republican and Rutherford B. Hayes was elected president. That's what happened then. We're in a different age now. And we need some sort of runoff. There's nothing in the Constitution about any of this -- all we have is precedent. It could be internationally supervised, you could take it out of the hands of the Americans. Bring in Kofi Annan, I'm not kidding. But the Democrats have to make a decision about how far they're going to press this. I think their sense of outrage at the moment should overtake their sense of magnanimity. Unless and until they are convinced the Bush won Florida fair and square, I would counsel them to hold off [conceding victory] because then it won't be a legitimate election. It's as simple as that.

The fact is, it's the governor's brother's state. Sometimes the appearance of illegitimacy is as great as the actual possibility. So unless the appearance is cleared up as well as the actualities, we're going to be an extraordinary situation -- peace in the country requires that this not just be a done election, but that it be a legitimate election. And that's still an open question.

Have you seen the Broward County ballot? It's pretty confusing. If you're old or confused, you might choose incorrectly. How can that stand in itself? They may say for the national good that the Democrats should back off. Maybe they'll do that. But it's a different situation than it was in 1960 when there were allegations and suspicions, but Nixon decided to back off. This is different: We know what's happening, and it's happening in front of our eyes.

The Naderites are responsible for sparking this constitutional crisis. The fact is that there is a progressive-liberal majority in the popular vote, and when you add the two votes together, it's substantial. Without Nader, Florida goes to Gore, fairly convincingly.

Bill Dalbec is a senior research executive for Wirthlin Worldwide.

I think it's like any contest you go into -- you know the rules going in. The two campaigns knew the rules, especially at the end when you saw exactly where they were going. In this case it's certainly relevant, and I think regardless of whether Vice President Gore wins the popular vote and loses the Electoral College, the Electoral College has to rule. That's what everyone has agreed to.

How that impacts the future is another question. I'm sure that if that is what the results end up being, it will prompt some people to want to take a second look at [the Electoral College]. I have no idea how that would go about, whether it's a congressional panel or task force or outside independent people gathered, but I'm sure there would be some call.

What that does though, if you go to just a natural national popular vote, is undermine what the founding fathers wanted to do -- which is set up a representative government. We've already seen that erode by the initiative campaigns [so many politicians are doing]. And politicians often take the easy way out by taking it to the people. Certainly the technology is there now that if you wanted to take out the national representative [you could make America a straight democracy where everyone votes on everything].

The bigger question is do we want to have a representative form of government or a direct democracy?

If it becomes a national campaign, beyond just going out and doing your due diligence, what's to prevent a candidate from just doing a media campaign and just going to the large cities in the nation and not worrying about states that might not be as appealing to a candidate? The Electoral College forces candidates to go and see what the real issues are facing people in all parts of the country. If you look at the swing states this year, there was a lot of diversity. Dismantling the Electoral College would do the population a disservice by not allowing them to get up and close to the candidates, and vice versa.

Before this [crisis] the Electoral College was pretty arcane; people may have seen states get called, but they didn't understand it at all. My wife brought home a paper last week that was written for children that explained the Electoral College in simple terms, and she finally understood it now. I think after last night, for anyone who had any interest in the outcome of the election, they certainly have a better idea what it's all about, though maybe not why it's so important.

Pat Choate was Ross Perot's running mate in the 1996 election.

There will be a lot of discussion about the Electoral College but a general acceptance of the results. We're a sophisticated enough society to understand, that's the rules. If Bush wins by the rules, he wins by the rules.

I have campaigned to abolish the Electoral College, and this makes a fairly powerful argument for that case. But I don't think the American political system will undertake that kind of an institutional change; I think they are too reluctant to take it on.

It's not a Chicken Little thing where the system is falling down, it's just the rules. We set it up so that this could happen, and it happened, and people will accept it.

Allan Lichtman is chairman of the Department of History at American University and author of "The Keys to the White House."

This is absolutely not a constitutional crisis. The Constitution is working. Whoever wins Florida will become president. Simply because the vote is being recounted doesn't create a constitutional crisis -- even if it goes into the courts. Elections get challenged all the time. That's a perfectly orderly constitutional process. I decry those who are calling this a crisis. We've had much worse. In 1876, three states had conflicting sets of returns, and it took them months to resolve it. It wasn't resolved until an electoral commission set up by Congress voted on party lines, 8-7, to give all the votes to Rutherford Hayes.

A few busloads of people in Florida are going to call this election. But with the results, the next president is going to have grave challenges governing with a Congress and the country so divided. It's remarkable how divided this is -- by gender, by race, by religion, by ideology, by geography. It's not Jesse Jackson vs. Jesse Helms, but there is a divide. If you look at the ratings of the American Conservative Union in Congress, Congress is more polarized ideologically today than at any time in 40 years. We have two parties that do stand for different things. It's not fascism vs. communism, but it is slightly left-of-center vs. slight right-of-center. The next president will have a great challenge to break through that gridlock.

The media is just shameless. The media is so captured by the entertainment culture that it's got to create a horse race driven by polls. It creates a horse race during the regular election process, and it creates it in the election eve process. They're all in competition to make these calls -- they want to make it dramatic, they want to do it in prime time. As a result, they've inserted themselves far too much into the American political process. They need to take a step back and try to return to the old days when they were more impartial arbiters than self-interested participants. The first call last night happened while the election was still going on -- when they called for Gore early on by saying he won Pennsylvania, Michigan and Florida. They inserted something in a major way into the process. The media need to get rid of exit polls. I know that's never going to happen because they're all in competition and Matt Drudge will force them all to do it. Otherwise, they should raise the bar and not make calls unless it's crystal clear.

Ronald Kessler is a former Washington Post investigative reporter and the bestselling author of "Inside the White House" and "Inside the CIA."

If Bush wins the electoral vote but Gore takes the popular vote, that's going to be another factor that's going to discourage Bush from moving in a radical direction. It does make you wonder if we should have a constitutional amendment to remove the Electoral College system and base elections solely on a popular vote. In this electronic age, it's ridiculous that we have to wait this long for results, and that we have to be dependent on these very arcane processes.

The Florida ballot is confusing. You really have to pay attention to vote the way you want. Still, I can't see that that's going to be enough to require [a reelection] because, in the end, the names weren't in invisible ink. You could vote what you wanted. I'm sure people make mistakes on regular ballots as well, [and] statistically, it's not significant enough.

Nader was the reason for the shift to Bush. And it seems Nader was just interested in his own glory, rather than actually furthering his own goals. [This election] has eroded his credibility, certainly in Washington.

[If Bush wins,] I don't think things are going to change that much. When people come to national positions they tend to become more inclusive, more mellow and less dogmatic. And between Bush's father and his top advisors, you're going to see a lot of wise council that comes right from the center.

Interviews were conducted by Amy Stanton, Janelle Brown and Daryl Lindsey.

Compiled by Salon staff

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