Fun_People Archive
24 Nov
Disputed Elections: An American Tradition

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From: Peter Langston <psl>
Date: Fri, 24 Nov 100 14:05:53 -0800
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Subject: Disputed Elections: An American Tradition

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     What would the Founding Fathers do?

   	Holly Brewer teaches history at North Carolina State
         University. Laurie Burnham is a writer in St. Paul, Minnesota

	Editor's Note:	The following was originally published by the
         History News Service.

	Some political analysts claim that without quick resolution of
	the current presidential election, Americans will lose all
         faith in the electoral process. But why rush to judgment?

	The historical record shows that earlier generations, including
	the Founding Fathers, believed that it is not haste but the
	careful counting and analysis of votes that sustains political
	freedom. A free society must always allow its citizens the
	right to reasonable objection and redress in cases of
         illegitimate electoral procedures.

	Throughout U.S. history, legislators have decreed that several
	months must stand between a president's election and
	inauguration. During this time, votes can be counted, results
	recorded and disseminated, and any procedural problems
	addressed. Now, with two months until the inauguration of our
	44th president, our nation has no need to rush the electoral
	process. In a world of instant gratification, we may want
         answers right away, but fairness is more important than haste.

	For more than 200 years, elections in America have been
	routinely disputed, a practice that protects the will of the
         people. It is the only insurance that citizens' intent is met.

	George Washington and Thomas Jefferson "intervened" in many
         disputed elections

	As members of Virginia's lower House of Assembly, George
	Washington and Thomas Jefferson themselves "intervened" in many
	disputed elections. During the eighteenth century, resolving
	contested elections was normally the first order of business in
	every new term, both in Virginia and in other colonies and
	states. Lawmakers would hear a county's claims and then decide
	whether an election needed to be examined more closely or
         nullified and redone.

	Indeed, the historical record is full of cases in which votes
	were resurveyed, confusing ballots reviewed, elections
	nullified, and voters recanvassed. Even a cursory look at legal
	reports from the nineteenth century reveals thousands of pages
         devoted to contested elections.

	When elections were questioned, common sense, rather than
	adherence to technicality, prevailed. Long before punch cards
	and other modern balloting methods became available, voters
	wrote candidates' names on slips of paper. Misspellings and
	wrong initials of first names and last names were commonplace.
	Rather than throw out the ballots, as electoral judges in
	Florida have recently done, judges ruled that voters' intent
         had to be determined whenever possible.

	Consider this report from Connecticut in 1878. "Votes cast at
	an election for A.J.W. may be shown to have been intended for
	A.L.W. The fact that A.L.W. was a candidate and received a
	large number of votes, and that no person of the name of A.J.W.
	or of the same first and last names, without the middle
	initial, resided in the district, would be satisfactory
	evidence to show that the votes must have been intended for
	A.L.W." The judge considered voters' intent rather than
         nullifying their votes.

	In Iowa in 1877, judges ruled that "in reviewing an election
	and determining its validity, the court must, if possible, give
	to contested ballots such a construction as will make them

	How do these cases relate to the current presidential election?
	Fully 19,000 voters in Florida's Palm Beach County had their
	votes disqualified because they punched two choices when
	selecting a presidential candidate. Although the voters are
	guilty of technical error, the ballot was misleading. It had
	punch holes next to the names of both Democratic candidates,
         for president and vice President.

	According to precinct workers, many voters who found the ballot
	confusing were denied assistance. And at least one voter who
	mistakenly voted for Buchanan was refused a new ballot,
	contrary to electoral law. Thousands of other ballots with
	incomplete punches have not been counted because the tabulating
         machine couldn't read them.

	How might this epic dispute be best resolved? We need to ask
         how the founders would have reacted.

	According to the machine results, 11,000 people who cast
	ballots in Palm Beach voted for no one for President. Clearly
	the electoral process in West Palm Beach malfunctioned. With
	political pressure for a solution mounting, how might this epic
	dispute be best resolved? To answer that question, we need to
	ask how our nation's founders would have reacted. One can only
	suppose that they would assign twenty-first century voters at
         least the same rights held by voters in earlier centuries.

	The time has come for both political parties to embrace the
	well-established tradition of electoral redress and to show
	respect for the voter by honoring intent. A first step would be
	an accurate manual recount in the presence of both partial and
	impartial witnesses. This would help to clarify the intent of
	some 30,000 voters and help to restore America's faith in the
         electoral process.

	A second option, also supported by historical precedent, would
	be to give all who voted in that county the chance to recast
	their ballots (quickly and without advertising or
	interference). That would be the fairest option, since it would
         provide the best gauge of their intent.

	If all votes statewide need to be recounted by hand for
	consistency, so be it. And if votes in Wisconsin and Iowa need
	to be recounted, so be it. Neither Washington, nor Jefferson,
	would have found that requirement objectionable. They would
	have objected, however, to any candidate who sought the
	presidency at the expense of the legitimacy and integrity of
         the democratic process.
Copyright 1999-2000 The Florence Fund

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