Let's Get This Straight

The hysteria over alleged voter fraud in Florida and the possibility of installing a President without a plurality of the popular vote is taking on impeachment proportions. But let's not let the drama confuse us about which issue is which. And besides, the Electoral College isn't necessarily a bad thing.

| Thu Nov. 9, 2000 3:00 AM EST

Making sure Texas Governor George W. Bush didn't steal the election in Florida doesn't mean we should throw out the Electoral College. Yet some are calling for just that. Meanwhile, the battle lines over the presidential election results are beginning to take on the cast of the impeachment struggle.

The familiar impeachment players are back. We have Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Fla. -- one of Clinton's staunchest defenders in Congress -- on television railing against electoral improprieties in Florida. Rep. Bill Delahunt, D-Mass. -- another Clinton defender -- is introducing legislation attempting to change the system by which America elects its president. Greg Craig -- Clinton's impeachment lawyer -- is heading to Florida to investigate voting fraud there. But curbing voter fraud and eliminating the Electoral College are not the same thing.

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Let's handle Wexler's argument first. Something deeply disturbing seems to have happened in Palm Beach. You have the prospect of Patrick Buchanan winning some 3,407 votes in Palm Beach. Accepting this result means believing that members of the elderly, heavily Jewish, retirement community -- many of whom were old enough to have been alive during the Holocaust -- voted for a man who has made a career of defending Nazi war criminals.

But that's not all. In the state-wide Florida race, both Buchanan and Joel Deckard, the Reform Senate candidate, got around 17,000 votes. But in Palm Beach, the Reform Senate candidate drew only only 1,282 votes. Unless there were a hugely disproportionate number of Reform Party ticket splitters in Palm Beach (which seems inconceivable), there were very likely about 2,100 erroneous Buchanan votes there. (The Palm Beach ballot for Senate, unlike its presidential neighbor, was strictly vertical, so there was no possibility of confusion there.)

Meanwhile, in Volusia County, James Harris, the Socialist candidate for president received 9,888 votes -- almost half of what he received nationwide. Right now, nobody knows how this happened, but it is under investigation. Elsewhere, there are allegations that government officials intimidated African-American voters away from the polls and that the Florida Registry of Motor Vehicle mishandled some of the motor-voter registrations.

All these sordid tales smack of Bush's dirty play in South Carolina -- something we've heard all too little about since the primaries. It also calls to mind the Jim Crow days of voter tests and banning African Americans from voting. These allegations need to be fully investigated. The Gore camp needs to understand, however, that opening up the process could cause some of its votes -- in California and elsewhere -- to be called into question too. (Remember the way Rep. Bob "B-1 bomber" Dornan challenged the numbers of new Democratic immigrant voters who went for Rep. Loretta Sanchez in 1998?)

Looking into these improprieties is a much different thing than abolishing the Electoral College, as some have called for. Prior to election night, the Gore camp defended the Electoral College and the Bushies criticized it. But both sides agreed to run by the existing rules. In fact, the Gore team actually tailored their 12-18 state presidential campaign around the Electoral College. As archaic as the Electoral College seems, it is actually one of the planks of America's stability. The college prevents the more densely populated states from running roughshod over the more sparsely populated ones. It reflects the nation's regional differences. Only after the most serious scrutiny should we consider altering it.

Seth Gitell is a writer for the Boston Phoenix, where this article first appeared.