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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

For Florida Legislature, It's Full Speed Ahead to Name Electors

Vote: Republicans move to select a slate of electoral college delegates, in the event Gore wins the contest. Democrats say they're powerless to stop them.

November 29, 2000|JEFFREY GETTLEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The Florida Legislature is racing ahead to circumvent the current election court battles and hand George W. Bush its 25 precious electoral votes and Democratic lawmakers say there is nothing they can do to stop it.

Lawmakers on both sides indicated Tuesday that the Republican-dominated Legislature will call a special session by the end of the week to appoint its own slate of delegates to the electoral college. That raises the specter that if Vice President Al Gore somehow wins the election contest underway in court, the showdown could move to Congress, where lawmakers will have to pick between two sets of competing delegates.

"I'm afraid there is little we can do to prevent this horrible outcome from happening," said Lois Frankel of Palm Beach County, the minority leader in the state House. "It's inevitable now."

Florida's Republican lawmakers, who outnumber Democrats, 77 to 43, in the House and 25 to 15 in the Senate, want to name their own delegates to the electoral college in case Gore wins the contest phase of Florida's presidential election. Their plan is to make everything that's going on in court moot. That way Texas Gov. George W. Bush will be guaranteed Florida's electoral votes and the presidency, no matter what happens with the election contest, the U.S. Supreme Court appeal or any of the other dozen or so pending lawsuits.

And they want to act fast.

"Because there is no other way to protect our votes, I expect us to name our own delegates as soon as possible," said Johnnie Byrd, a Republican state representative from Plant City.

It is a partisan drive, but Republican lawmakers in Florida have sought to include Democrats and legal experts in an attempt to add legitimacy to the process.

On Tuesday, a "select joint committee" made up of eight Republicans and six Democrats met to discuss the situation. The Republicans invited two constitutional law professors, one from Harvard University, the other from UC Berkeley, to make the case for taking action.

Einer Elhauge, the Harvard professor, said there is no way that Gore's contest phase underway in Leon County Circuit Court and the probable appeals will be finished by Dec. 12, the date which Florida is supposed to choose its electors. The average election contest takes 1 1/2 years to resolve, he said.

Therefore, Elhauge argued, unless lawmakers appoint their own delegates, they risk having nobody represent Florida in the electoral college because the state's election still may be undecided.

"In the end my recommendation is like the Boy Scouts," Elhauge said. "Be prepared. Have a set of delegates already chosen."

Elhauge and UC expert John Yoo both said state legislatures--and not any other branch of the state government--are empowered to name delegates to the electoral college.

Such arguments were part of the attack Republicans are waging on the Florida Supreme Court, which has ruled that the hand counts requested by Gore should be included in the final result.

Elhauge and Yoo were the authors of the brief filed to the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday on behalf of the Legislature that contends the Florida high court had violated the separation of power between the branches of government and that the Legislature alone has authority to appoint delegates.

Democratic lawmakers said they didn't know in advance about the brief, commissioned by the Republican leadership, and felt ambushed.

Democrats say that if the court battles aren't over by Dec. 12, the Legislature should use the election results already certified that gave Bush the victory.

"I don't see why we have to appoint another set of delegates if we can use the already certified results," said Ken Gottlieb, a Democratic state representative from Broward County. "Why are we even here?"

Republican lawmakers countered that the results certified Sunday may be considered invalid because of all the legal wrangling or they may be rejected by the electoral college if the contest phase is still going on.

The next step will come today, when the select committee reconvenes for an all-day meeting. Lawmakers on both sides said they expect the meeting to end with a recommendation, along a straight 8-6 party line vote, for the Legislature leadership to call for a special session.

The Florida Legislature meets only two months out of the year--from March to early May--and needs to call a special session to reconvene lawmakers to Tallahassee before a vote can be taken on the delegates issue.

It is assumed by everyone involved that if the Republican-dominated Legislature picks its own delegates all 25 electoral votes will go to Bush.

Democratic loyalists say such a move will be a public relations disaster.

"It's like shooting themselves in the foot," said Bob Butterworth, Florida's attorney general and a Gore supporter. "The people in this state won't tolerate being pushed aside like that."

There's also the Jeb Bush factor. So far Jeb Bush, Florida's governor, has maintained a low profile in the election disputes in the state that he was supposed to carry for his older brother. Republican lawmakers say they will be able to pass a vote for new delegates without Jeb Bush taking any action, a path, they say, that carries less political risk.

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