The plague of lawyers that has descended on Florida is hardly a sign of a coming political apocalypse. No, it is merely a reminder-not that we necessarily need one-that we are a nation not of laws but of lawyers. “In your hands, my fellow citizens … will rest the final success or failure of our course,” John F. Kennedy said in his Inaugural Address, paying tribute to the ultimate arbiters of democracy. The final success or failure of this year’s proceedings, however, lies not in the hands of citizens, but in the arguments of lawyers and the decisions of judges.
So be it. While the courtroom arguments go on, it’s worth spending a few moments on where we stand, regardless of the outcome.
First, it is being said that the eventual winner of Campaign 2000 will lack a mandate and thus will be constrained from any sort of bold action. That kind of made-for-cable pontificating ignores (not surprisingly) both history and reality. Americans rarely give any one individual the kind of sweeping mandate one hears discussed on election night. American politicians govern from the center, and our electoral returns are a reflection of consensus-seeking politics. Ronald Reagan’s defeat of Jimmy Carter in 1980 was considered a smashing victory; in fact, Mr. Reagan won slightly less than 52 percent of the vote. Only a handful of Presidential candidates (Lyndon Johnson in 1964, Mr. Reagan in 1984, to name a few) have won more than 57 or 58 percent; most, like Abraham Lincoln (55 percent in his re-election of 1864), William McKinley (52 percent in 1896) and George Bush (54 percent in 1988), win with smaller majorities, even in seemingly decisive elections. And Bill Clinton, in two easy victories, never broke 50 percent. Yet none of those Presidents, nor any other President worth mentioning, seemed overly constrained once in office. For an ambitious politician intent on finding a place in history, a one-vote margin is mandate enough.
Secondly, because Mr. Gore may lose the Presidency despite having won the popular vote, there has arisen a great hue and cry against the Electoral College, led by Senator-elect Hillary Rodham Clinton. Liberal scholars, historians and agenda-driven journalists are taking out calculators to show that the Electoral College magnifies the votes of citizens in small states, and this, they contend with all due righteousness, violates the 14th Amendment’s equal-protection clause. “One person, one vote,” they cry.
It’s always dangerous when pontificators start playing around with numbers-one such writer did some figuring on the New York Times Op-Ed page and concluded that because of the dastardly Electoral College, one electoral vote from New York represents 550,000 people, while one electoral vote from South Dakota represents a mere 232,000 people. This, he charged, is nothing less than a danger to our democracy, because each vote ought to represent an equal number of citizens. (This was the same argument used more than a decade ago to kill the city’s Board of Estimate, which gave Staten Island’s borough president, representing about 400,000 people, the same single vote as Brooklyn’s borough president, who represented more than two million people.)
Spare us the hand-wringing. The Electoral College may not adhere to the modern interpretation of the 14th Amendment (you won’t find the actual phrase “one person, one vote” in the Constitution), but then again, neither does the U.S. Senate, where each state has two votes regardless of population. Two Senators from California represent 32 million people; two from Alaska represent 614,000. That’s one Senate vote for every 16 million Californians, and one such vote for every 307,000 Alaskans. Following the anti–Electoral College logic, the Senate is in violation of the 14th Amendment, too. But the Electoral College and U.S. Senate are creations of the U.S. Constitution. Are Hillary Rodham Clinton and her like-minded sour-grapers prepared to argue that the Constitution is, er, unconstitutional? This could get mighty interesting.
The Electoral College has served the Republic well since its founding, and it continues to do so. It diffuses the power of the central government. And it guarantees that no state is left behind in the mad scramble for electoral votes. It should be left alone.
Thirdly, the spectacle in Florida ought to embarrass those of us who believe we live in a modern, high-tech democracy. The sight of electoral workers sorting though punch cards should be enough to persuade every state, every locality, to invest in modern ballot boxes. Florida is hardly the only state still firmly planted in the 20th century. In New York, the Board of Elections must make do with machines that are 30 or 40 years old and subject to countless breakdowns.
Both sides in the Florida dispute are right: The machines can’t be trusted to deliver an accurate count, and neither can the hand-counters. That’s what happens when you conduct elections on the cheap. It’s a flawed system, and one that may require the attention of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Finally, about all those lawyers: Isn’t it interesting that so many high-priced legal talents worked day and night on this complex case out of the goodness of their hearts? Who knew that pro bono work was still such an important part of so many lawyers’ lives?
No doubt none of them has spent even a moment thinking of high-ranking positions in the new administration’s Justice Department.