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Land: Concept of fair elections threatened by Gore challenge

WASHINGTON (BP)–In the wake of the certification of George W. Bush as the winner in Florida’s presidential balloting and the promise of a Democratic challenge of that result, a Southern Baptist ethics specialist warned the concept of fair elections is threatened.

Bush, the Republican candidate, was certified as the winner of Florida’s 25 electoral votes Nov. 26. After the deadline of 5 p.m. established by Florida’s Supreme Court five days earlier passed, the state Elections Canvassing Commission declared Bush the victor over Vice President Al Gore by only 537 votes from more than 6 million cast. If the certification holds up, Bush will have 271 electoral votes, surpassing the 270 needed for victory.

Gore’s running mate, Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, said later in the evening the Democratic ticket had “no choice but to contest these actions.” The certification was of “what by any reasonable standard is an incomplete and inaccurate count of the votes cast in the state of Florida,” Lieberman said, according to a transcript in The Washington Post.

Even later in the evening, Bush, the governor of Texas, asked Gore to reconsider contesting the election. He also said he had asked his running mate, Dick Cheney, to work with the Clinton administration to open a transition office in the capital.

“This has been a hard-fought election, a healthy contest for American democracy,” Bush said, according to The Post transcript. “But now that the votes are counted, it is time for the votes to count.”

The certification was delayed when the state Supreme Court acted Nov. 17 to block Secretary of State Katherine Harris from declaring a winner the next day after the deadline for absentee ballots had passed. On Nov. 21, the state high court unanimously ruled Harris must accept manual recounts until 5 p.m. Nov. 26.

Two counties’ manual recounts were not included in the total certified. Miami-Dade County chose not to continue its recount because its canvassing board decided it could not meet the deadline. Palm Beach County’s board did not meet the deadline, and a partial recount was not included in the certified totals.

The U.S. Supreme Court, meanwhile, agreed to hear oral arguments Dec. 1 on the Florida high court’s decision. The Bush campaign argued the rights of some voters were violated because manual recounts were allowed in certain counties. The justices announced Nov. 24 they would review the case.

The decision by Gore and Lieberman to contest the election demonstrates they “have abandoned any pretense of a fair election,” said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

“What we in America expect of our elections is that they be fair,” Land said. “There’s never been a perfect election. Voting machines are going to malfunction.”

A fair election is one “in which all the votes cast are counted and evaluated the same way by the same standards,” Land said. “That basic rule of law is under sustained assault by Mr. Gore and his legions of lawyers.”

The development of a “fundamental disrespect for the law,” in this case Florida’s elections laws, results in a loss of “fairness and the rule of law,” Land said.

The Gore team is practicing “blatant hypocrisy” in calling for counting voter intent on ballots in certain counties while Democratic lawyers sought to disqualify absentee ballots from overseas military members on the basis of a technicality, Land said.

“Why the attempt to disqualify on technicality? Simply because most of those votes were for Mr. Bush,” Land said. “Clearly the Gore strategy is to go into court and disqualify any potential Republican ballot on any technicality and try to go on a vote search for every Gore vote they can possibly discern or find in the most heavily Democratic counties in the state of Florida. This ceased a long time ago to be a recount. It is a selective reevaluation of ballots in certain heavily Democratic constituencies and only those constituencies, not a recount.”

While he has “grave reservations” about the outcome of a national election being determined by the judiciary, Land said, “I think most Americans join me in being far more comfortable with this being adjudicated by the United States Supreme Court rather than” the Florida Supreme Court.

Land cited two recent news reports to buttress his concerns about the Florida court and Gore.

At least four of the seven judges on the state high court were recommended by Dexter Douglass, the “chief judge picker” for former Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles, according to a Nov. 20 editorial in The Wall Street Journal. Douglass is a lawyer for Gore in Florida. He boasted to The New York Times about those justices, “They’ll know I’m at the table,” according to The Wall Street Journal.

In the Nov. 20 Newsweek magazine, it is reported Gore told an aide in 1999, “I’m not like George Bush. If he wins or loses, life goes on. I’ll do anything to win.”

Land said, “Based on his actions since Nov. 7, I guess we must conclude that Mr. Gore has been in touch with the real Al Gore all along much more than we knew.”