A Land of Law

An impatient nation fidgeted Wednesday while the outcome of a razor-close presidential election rested on a recount of votes in Florida. If there are legal challenges, the suspense could stretch for weeks. But in the end, Americans can be assured that this election will be settled in due time, fairly and legally--a democratic confidence still sadly too rare in the world.

Many Democrats, and not a few Republicans, are disturbed that Vice President Al Gore won the national popular vote by as many as 200,000 votes and yet might lose in the electoral college. That has happened only three times in American history, and not since 1888. But Gore knows that's the system and will live by it should he lose.

The history of recounts tends to favor Texas Gov. George W. Bush. If his Florida lead stands up, he will become president-elect by a single electoral vote. In the heat of the moment, there are demands to dump the electoral college in favor of direct election of the president by popular vote. On its face it makes sense, but the electoral college is a foundation of our federal system, in which much power rests with the states. Yes, by basing the number of electors on Senate as well as House representation, smaller states have proportionately more power. But if the popular vote were all that mattered, what candidate would ever waste time on small or thinly populated states like Wyoming or Maine? Congress considered and rejected proposals to abolish the electoral college in 1969, 1977 and 1979.

There was no doubt about one element in Tuesday's election: Gore almost certainly would have won a clear victory but for the Green Party candidacy of Ralph Nader. Nader got 94,000 votes in Florida alone, and his vote tally spelled the margin of victory for Bush in other states too. These are votes that mostly would have gone to Gore.

The militantly unapologetic Nader said he was only trying to build the Greens as a third-party force, though the winner-takes-all nature of the U.S. political system makes such parties almost impossible to sustain. Nader failed even to win the 5% of the vote needed to qualify for federal matching funds in the next election.

If Bush wins, he will bear the stigma of a minority-vote president, putting his promise to end the bitter infighting in Washington to the severest possible test. The GOP still controls Congress, but by tiny margins--perhaps just a single vote in the Senate. That could become the landscape for four years of deadlock, which only the most determined efforts at friendly compromise might overcome. It is clearly no recipe for going forward with the more sweeping promises of either campaign; a go-slow signal may be just what voters intended.

Through all the turmoil and frustration of Wednesday, two people in particular handled the situation with public calm and grace--George W. Bush and Al Gore. Both provided a welcome example of leadership in the midst of confusion and turmoil. That in itself bodes well for the nation.

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