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Exit Polling Aside, the System Works

November 09, 2000|JAMES P. PINKERTON | James P. Pinkerton, who writes a column for Newsday in New York, worked in the White House of President George Bush. E-mail:

No matter who emerges as the winner, the presidential election of 2000 will be remembered as a powerful civics lesson in which Americans once again were instructed in the importance of voting and the primacy of the Constitution.

For his part, Al Gore has provided instruction in what not to do. For a man who prides himself on taking the long view of things, Gore was too much influenced by the ephemera of TV news in the wee hours of Wednesday morning. The networks, displaying their lamentable exit-polled dash to create rather than just report the news, first declared Gore and then George W. Bush to be the winner in Florida. The vice president called the Texas governor to concede--and then, when the networks pulled back their pro-Bush projection, he called back an hour later and unconceded.

Whoa. Doesn't a fellow have the right to change his mind? Sure, but would-be presidents of the United States should weigh their words and deeds carefully. The whole world, friend and foe alike, is watching for any sign of indecisiveness in a future commander in chief.

For his part, Bush stayed calm. Early in the evening, when the networks said he had lost those precious 25 electoral votes, he simply said he didn't accept the numbers and finished his family dinner. A few hours later, the tubesters changed their minds and said Bush had won Florida and the country. Although the declaration proved temporary, the Texan was able to project the image of a confident winner, while Gore looked like a contentious whiner.

To be sure, Bush will need all the spin-chits he can get. With the outcome in the Sunshine State still in doubt, the Florida recount will be the most closely scrutinized media event since the final episode of "Survivor."

If Gore, who appears to have won the popular vote nationwide, ends up losing Florida and so the election, the electoral college will come under fire yet again. But aside from the obvious question--would the Gore folks have been upset if the electoral college had gored Bush?--is it a good idea to tamper with a system that has kept American democracy secure for more than two centuries?

When creating the electoral college system, the founders envisioned that wise-men-type electors would gather every four years in state capitals and choose the best candidate to be president. The first real test for the young republic came in the election of 1800, when President John Adams lost the election to challenger Thomas Jefferson. Would Adams demand a recount of the electoral college, or would he abide by the electors' verdict? Adams chose defeat with honor, and true American democracy was born. Jefferson followed the conciliatory precedent in his 1801 inaugural address when he said: "We are all Republicans. We are all Federalists."

Such largeness of spirit on both sides of that election enabled democracy in the republic to flourish, such that it could survive the grave political crisis of 1876. In that year, just a decade after the Civil War, the electoral votes of three Southern states, pledged to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, were challenged by the forces of Democrat Samuel J. Tilden, who had won the popular vote. It was not until March 2, 1877, after four months of tortuous negotiation, that Americans knew which candidate would be inaugurated three days later. Was justice done to Tilden? Perhaps not. But a far greater injustice would have been done to the country had the entire democratic process collapsed in a squabble over the outcome of a single election.

The founders may not have anticipated Gore's television-driven fecklessness, but they understood human foibles. As James Madison warned his fellow Constitution writers, "Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm." If Gore wins the popular vote and yet loses the presidency, popular passion for a constitutional change in the electoral college will heat up. Yet thanks to the slow and tedious amendment process, there will be time for cooler heads to ask whether it's really a good idea to change a system that's worked well enough for 54 presidential elections.

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