New York Times
November 13, 2000

Fairness for Whom?

By Bob Herbert

Take a deep breath. Whatever happens in this election whichever candidate is unfortunate enough to win the country will survive.

Former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who is advising the Gore campaign, said he expects the dispute to be resolved in a matter of days. "We want to reach a full and fair result," he said on "Meet the Press." "But we want to do it in an expeditious way."

With luck, this fiasco will be resolved in a week or two. But with all due respect to Mr. Christopher, there is little chance it will be resolved fully and fairly.

The butterfly ballot mess in Palm Beach County has been widely reported. But there are also complaints that thousands of other properly registered Floridians, many of them black, were improperly prevented from voting. This has not gotten a lot of attention.

If you have large numbers of voters complaining that they were denied access to the polls, and you combine that with the fact that the Bush campaign is doing all it can to prevent a complete count of those who did vote, it's very difficult to imagine a way in which a full and fair result can be arrived at in a couple of weeks.

Public pressure can and probably will force one of the candidates to concede before a lot of time has passed. But it cannot force a fair and honest result. And that favors the Republicans. The public opinion polls leading up to Election Day and the exit polls on Election Day showed Vice President Al Gore ahead in Florida. They were probably right. They did not take into account butterfly ballots and voter suppression. Mr. Gore would most likely have won an unhampered vote. The nation will have to live with this affront for the next four years.

Gov. George W. Bush famously said of John McCain, "He can't take the high horse and then claim the low road." Well, Mr. Bush and his campaign are doing something along those garbled lines by galloping into federal court in a misguided effort to stop the hand counting of ballots in Palm Beach County.

Make no mistake the Republicans are not interested in a full and fair count. They are not interested in seeing that all eligible voters have unhampered access to the polls. And they most certainly do not want African-American voters casting their ballots in any large numbers.

These are matters that should get the highest degree of attention now and over the next several years. Florida has a lousy history when it comes to protecting the rights of voters, and both Democrats and Republicans ought to be addressing that.

But don't hold your breath waiting for help from the Republicans. The Bush camp is frantically trying to get this election sealed before the sheriff shows up and takes it away. Former Secretary of State James A. Baker III asserted on Thursday that "we need to back off here a bit about filing lawsuits and hurling charges." What he meant, apparently, was that Gore partisans should back off. Because there he was on Saturday championing the Bush campaign's decision to file its dubious federal lawsuit to stop the hand count in Palm Beach County.

Is there a Republican official anywhere in the country who is concerned about the fact that many thousands of honest voters in Florida have apparently been thwarted in their effort to vote for the candidate of their choice?

Over the last few days we've seen Mr. Bush playing president down in Texas, bouncing around like a puppy among the big dogs from his father's administration. He declared, among other things, that "there's issues in Israel right now that I'm looking forward to hearing about."

If Mr. Bush is ahead in Florida after the absentee ballots are counted, there will be tremendous pressure on Al Gore to forget the voter suppression and concede the White House to his Texas rival. And he would probably do so.

And, politically, he would probably be better off.

Looking ahead to this next presidency is like looking at a new car that's been damaged on the way to the showroom. Mr. Gore may find that it's better to let W. have it.

As for the rest of us, we keep hearing that this election has shown that every vote counts. What we need to hear is how important it is to turn a spotlight on the enemies of democracy who go out of their way to prevent eligible Americans from voting.

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