Calling all statesmen

Katherine Harris and the Florida Supreme Court should give way to an election commission -- Presidents Carter and Ford are ready -- that could devise a bipartisan way out of this mess.

By Daryl Lindsey

Published November 21, 2000 1:07AM (EST)

Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch goes on MSNBC to compare Vice President Al Gore to deposed Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. Republican House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, lambastes the Democrats' efforts to seek a fair recount of Florida ballots as "a theft in progress." Meanwhile, Gore's spokesman, Chris Lehane, compares the decisions of Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris to those of a "Soviet commissar," and Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz calls Harris a "crook."

Yes, this is a crisis, but not the constitutional crisis the Washington windbags would have you believe. It's hard to imagine our nation sinking any lower in the eyes of the world than when a respected senator compares the vice president to a man who oversaw the slaughter of thousands of innocent men and boys in Srebrenica and expelled 1.8 million ethnic Albanians from Kosovo. But it's not much better when Democrats regress to Cold War-era rhetoric to defame Florida's admittedly biased election overseer. Have they all been slapping back too much vodka in these tense final days of the election, or what? Such inflammatory statements do more to damage our democracy than this insanely close presidential race ever will.

As the nastiest partisan rancor emerges since the impeachment of President Clinton, and allegations of bias on the part of the officials responsible for certifying Florida's vote become more strident, and more convincing, we need a new approach to solve the crisis -- one that restores dignity to and faith in the way we elect our president, and doesn't rely purely on Florida courts to solve a national problem. This is not a constitutional crisis -- the provisions in the Founding Fathers' blueprint for American governance are sufficient to resolve the question of who our next president will be. It's a crisis of confidence in those institutions.

It's easy to see why Democrats hate Harris so much. The Florida secretary of state has an image problem, to say the least. To her detractors (including "Saturday Night Live" writers), as the co-chairwoman of the Bush campaign in Florida, Harris has a conflict of interest on her hands not seen since President Nixon fired Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox. No reasonable person can conclude that her decision making could have been guided by the best interests of voters.

The Florida Supreme Court exercised sound judgment when it ruled Friday that Harris could not move in haste to certify election results on Saturday. The appearance of any impropriety or conflict of interest at this late stage in the election can only serve to taint the outcome of the Florida vote, and would surely make whichever administration finally makes its home in the White House come January politically impotent. And yet there may also be a taint to results, especially if they favor Gore, that were approved by a Democrat-appointed state Supreme Court.

That's why it's time for a meta-political solution, a diplomatic endgame. Harris should accept the offer extended by former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford -- one a Democrat and the other a Republican, both respected elder statesman -- to create a commission to assume responsibility for reviewing and solving problems that have arisen in Florida's ballot count. The commission would be crucial should the Florida Supreme Court ultimately decide that the issue of hand counts, hanging chads and other vagaries is entirely Harris' responsibility. In such a case, she should recuse herself and turn to the commission.

If the court decides that the manual recounts may continue, and may be included in the final Florida vote tally, a Carter-Ford commission would also be useful. And if Gore wins, the vice president could work with the former presidents to consider the option of a Florida-wide manual recount, given the idiosyncrasies of the ballot count and recount in Florida's 67 counties.

Gore has said repeatedly that he doesn't want the presidency if the process that yields it is unfair. He would have a severe legitimacy crisis if he took office based on recounts in only three Democratic counties. And now, with the manual recount yielding fewer votes than expected and the Gore team pushing to count dimpled and pregnant chads, we need authorities perceived to be more neutral than either Harris or the Florida Supreme Court to come up with a solution Americans will trust.

Carter and Ford are ready. In his post-presidential career, Carter has monitored elections in 30 nations, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution -- though he probably never thought he would be called upon to oversee an electoral crisis in his own country. By bringing in Carter and Ford, Harris and, by extension, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush can bring a halt to this crisis of confidence before it causes lasting damage. Such a step would demonstrate that they put the interests of the nation over giving George W. Bush a tainted White House win, and would reduce the threat of a real constitutional crisis in the months to come.

Daryl Lindsey

Daryl Lindsey is associate editor of Salon News and an Arthur Burns fellow. He currently lives in Berlin and writes for Salon and Die Welt.

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2000 Elections Al Gore George W. Bush