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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

Acrimony Lingers From an Eerily Similar Battle for '84 House Seat

Politics: An election dispute in Indiana ended when Democrats refused to seat the GOP winner. The fight led to partisan rancor that is now a capital staple.

November 17, 2000|JONATHAN PETERSON and JANET HOOK | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — It happened once before: a chaotic, contested, anger-plagued election that haunts American politics to this day.

The vote was a virtual tie. Recounts were demanded--then rejected. Increasingly distrustful camps warred over absentee ballots and the vagaries of voter intent. A Republican secretary of state came under fire. Controversy spilled over into the courts.

And in the end, when the Democratic-controlled U.S. House refused to seat the certified Republican winner from southwest Indiana, political relations took a long plunge into partisan bitterness--the sort of animus that threatens whoever ends up in the White House next year.

"When it was over, the buildings were still standing but the foundations were cracked," recalled John J. Pitney Jr., a political scientist and Capitol Hill aide during the controversy of 1984-85. "It really changed the level of mutual animosity and the atmosphere of the House--to this day."

"Indiana 8" (the disputed election was in the state's 8th Congressional District) became a gut-wrenching GOP battle cry, an early milestone in the nation's journey toward divisive, bitter politics that is now reflected in everything from the climate in the capital to razor-thin margins in elections across the country.

A Troubling Lesson on Tainted Elections

Indeed, in the eerie parallels between today's presidential election and its Indiana predecessor, some see a warning for Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore: A result tainted with even the appearance of bias--however accurate the result may be--can trigger reactions that are destructive, long-lasting and unpredictable.

"People have to realize that these disputes have consequences. And what was true about one congressional district would be greatly magnified in a presidential race," warned former Rep. Lee H. Hamilton, an Indiana Democrat who heads the Smithsonian Institution's Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Although little known, the tortured tale of Indiana's "Bloody 8" remains seared in the memory of many politicians.

At first, in the early hours after the Nov. 6, 1984, election, it appeared that incumbent Rep. Frank McCloskey, a Democrat, had eked out a victory by 72 votes. But it was quickly discovered that two precincts had counted ballots twice, skewing the result in favor of the former Bloomington mayor.

Five weeks later, to the shock of Democrats, Indiana's Republican secretary of state certified Republican Richard McIntyre as the winner by 34 votes. McIntyre's margin grew to 418 in a January recount, when officials tossed out 4,800 ballots for a range of technical reasons that were judged by differing standards in the district's 15 counties.

On Capitol Hill, however, the Democratic-controlled House questioned the findings and created a three member panel--two Democrats and one Republican--to recommend which man should be seated in Congress.

Seeking a process that would withstand scrutiny, task force members hired auditors from the government's General Accounting Office. But Republicans complained that Democrats were stealing the election and employing a sham process to do it.

"If he is denied his seat, then any certified candidate . . . is open to political attack," Rep. Bill Thomas of California, the Republican on the task force, complained at the time.

Quickly, the task force ran into pivotal disputes over which absentee ballots should be accepted and which should be rejected. In succeeding weeks, Republicans tried to seat McIntyre on several occasions, once launching a surprise vote when many Democrats were out of town. But the majority party always managed to prevail.

Increasingly frustrated Republicans unveiled aggressive guerrilla tactics, forcing roll-call votes on minor matters, blistering the podium with motions to adjourn and on at least one occasion keeping the House in session all night.

On May 1, six months after the election, the task force ruled that Democrat McCloskey had won the race by four votes. The House quickly endorsed the panel's finding.

The party-line vote became a watershed in a new era of partisan feuding, even prompting the strange spectacle of Republican lawmakers singing "We Shall Overcome" as they stormed out of the House.

In an interview this week, Rep. Leon E. Panetta, the Carmel Valley Democrat who was chairman of the task force, cited the difficulty of bringing a disputed election to a satisfying conclusion: "The lessons are that, no matter what process is agreed upon, when it comes down to a very close vote, it leaves some very deep feelings that are not easily overcome."

But, he said, the House vote to seat McCloskey would have been more broadly accepted if the task force had included an equal number of Democrats and Republicans and if there had been consensus in the finding: "If the committee leans partisan, either Republican or Democratic, then it will always be viewed as a partisan result."

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