New York Times Editorial
November 13, 2000


Florida's Crucial Vote Count


Despite mounting public impatience with the delay in determining the outcome of the presidential election, the vote-counting process unhappily edged toward more confusion over the weekend. The potential for new trouble was introduced by Gov. George W. Bush, who moved in federal court to block the manual counting of ballots in Florida. It was a puzzling step from someone who earlier had rightly deplored the tendency toward litigation among Democrats. The obvious way out of the current mess is for the forces of Mr. Bush and Vice President Al Gore to drop their actual and threatened lawsuits challenging the validity of the ballots and the vote- counting in Florida and other states. If counting and recounting proceed unimpeded, we can know who the next president is by the end of the week.

Public tolerance of Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore as they jockey to ensure an accurate count of the votes in the close election last Tuesday is certain to be limited. Voters like the ones in Palm Beach County who felt that the ballot misled them into voting for Patrick Buchanan instead of Mr. Gore have a right to air their grievances. But the problem with the confusing "butterfly" ballot used in the county is that there is no realistic solution acceptable to all sides. It is unlikely and it would be inadvisable for a judge to order a new election, or to guess the intent behind the double-punched ballots. A new election would be less a replay than a runoff. The more relevant issue is getting an accurate count of all legitimate ballots cast, including those where the perforation may not have been cleanly made. Machines can misread such ballots as unmarked and discard them. Thousands of ballots like this may not have been counted in Palm Beach County.

Mr. Bush's move to stop the manual vote counting in four heavily Democratic counties in Florida was wrongly conceived. The argument of James A. Baker III that hand counting is an error- prone attempt to "divine" voter intentions is mistaken. Far from guesswork, the process of examining the ballots in Florida over the weekend was simply one of trying to see if a hole had been punched in the ballot. As Warren Christopher noted for the Democrats, hand counts are lawful in Florida and other states, including Texas. Mr. Baker sounded as if he was trying to short-circuit a legitimate effort to make sure that all the votes were counted, simply because the Bush camp was worried about the result.

The Bush campaign would be on firmer ground if it asked that deadlines be waived to allow manual vote counting in heavily Republican districts as well as those that voted for Mr. Gore. Most recounts end up adding votes to all candidates. It might even be the fairest solution to have a manual count statewide. Mr. Baker and Mr. Christopher, both former secretaries of state, are two of the nation's most experienced diplomats. They ought to be able to negotiate an agreement that ends the litigation and leaves the selection of a new president where it belongs at this late hour in a careful and accurate count of the votes already cast by Floridians. There is no reason such an agreement cannot include a deadline of next weekend for completing the count, including absentee ballots from overseas that are due no later than Friday. Certification of the Florida vote totals should not be made by the state until the manual counting is completed.

During the campaign, Mr. Bush tirelessly repeated his belief that states should be allowed to determine what is best for them. It is disingenuous for him to challenge the constitutionality of a law similar to one his own state adopted. As the Democrats noted, he availed himself of a hand count in at least one county already where his operatives felt they could get a more fair and complete result. With a concerted effort to count ballots by hand, and agreement between the Bush and Gore camps to put the national interest above personal and party interests, Americans can find out who their next president is before the week is out.

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