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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

Unless Fraud Is Found, Forget Revote, Experts Say

Legal: Federal judges and officials--as well as state courts--are likely to be wary of getting involved because of questions of fairness and logistics.

November 11, 2000|ERIC LICHTBLAU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — A quarter-century ago in New Hampshire, voters went back to the polls in an unprecedented exercise, compelled to vote a second time in a U.S. Senate election that they thought they had decided 10 months earlier.

The first go-round was too close to call. The Republican candidate, Louis C. Wyman, thought he had won by 355 votes, only to see his lead dwindle and finally evaporate into a 10-vote deficit on the final recount. After seven months of divisive political wrangling in Washington and in New Hampshire amid allegations of voting irregularities, the Senate finally ordered a new vote and Democrat John A. Durkin won easily.

The rarity of the event--experts said it is the only revote on record in a federal election--underscores the legal and historical obstacles faced by anyone seeking to upset the electoral apple cart.

Florida's highest court has given judges broad power in theory to overturn election results, and angry Floridians have taken to the streets and talk shows in recent days to demand a revote on grounds that thousands of their voices went unheard in Tuesday's election.

Vice President Al Gore's campaign acknowledged earlier in the week that it sees a second vote as one possible remedy, and his camp reiterated Friday that it intends to keep open all legal options.

Bill Daley, the Democratic presidential candidate's campaign chairman, said Friday that he believes it is clear that the confusing ballot design used in Palm Beach County--which many voters complain led them to vote mistakenly for Reform Party presidential candidate Pat Buchanan--was "an unlawful ballot" under state law dictating its format.

"We'll see what actions proceed out of that." The principle driving their decision-making, Daley said, is that "the people should decide."

Experts, however, said that, absent evidence of outright fraud, chances of a second vote appear exceedingly slim in light of the legal, practical and political pressures involved.

In a Revote, Who Would Participate?

Federal judges and authorities, with historical aversion to meddling in local elections, "are going to treat this like Kryptonite--it will kill even Superman," said Jan W. Baran, an election law expert who has worked for the Republican Party and had served with the Federal Election Commission in the 1970s.

And state courts may be just as wary of getting involved because of questions of fairness and logistics, experts on both sides of the political aisle said.

If a revote is considered in Florida, who would get to vote again? Anyone who's registered? Or just those who voted Tuesday? Just Palm Beach voters, those in other suspect counties or voters statewide? Would local candidates in Florida who already have won their races be on the ballot again?

What about the handful of other very close races around the country? Would they too be facing second votes if enough irregularities were found?

And perhaps most fundamentally, experts asked, could officials in Florida essentially put the genie back in the bottle and hope to re-create the conditions of Tuesday's election with the fate of the nation now essentially hinging on the second vote?

In the New Hampshire reelection in 1975, the second vote generated such an intense spotlight that then-President Ford and future President Reagan came through to stump for Wyman, the GOP candidate.

N.H. Race a Reminder of Pitfalls of a Revote

John H. Sununu, a former New Hampshire governor and later White House chief of staff under George Bush, still remembers that second election bitterly, calling it "the contest the Democrats stole" in the wake of Wyman's apparent victory in the initial count.

He said in an interview Friday that it should serve as a reminder of the pitfalls of attempting a new election, especially in the wake of the unparalleled controversy generated by Tuesday's vote and the tremendous stakes on the line in Florida.

"Revotes do not capture the reality of the day of the election. . . . It becomes a different kind of election because you are voting in isolation from the rest of the country, and, frankly, it's about the dumbest idea I've heard in all this," Sununu said.

Baran, the former FEC official, agreed that a second vote would pose huge legal and logistical obstacles.

"I see a revote as being extremely unlikely," he said. "The bottom line is that an election day in December or January would be different than one in November. An election is a moment in time."

Robert M. Stern, an election law expert who served as election counsel under then-California Secretary of State Jerry Brown in the 1970s, said he believes that a second Florida vote would rest on shaky legal foundations and "would cause chaos in the election."

Courts historically have been reluctant to order second elections because of the sanctity of the separation of powers concept, he and other lawyers noted.

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