- The Washington Times - Monday, December 4, 2000

The legal rumble over the election seems to be going down to the eye-gouging, kidney-punching bitter end, with no chad left unturned. But when it is over, and we finally have a president facing the daunting task of "unifying" an almost evenly divided Congress, will we have learned any real lessons for the future?
The answer is yes. But those lessons have little to do with gripes about the Electoral College. They have more to do with the many ways in which the process has validated an important conclusion reached by New York's retiring senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan: "The single most exciting thing you encounter in government is competence, because it is so rare."
Election incompetence seems to have been everywhere:
The government is apparently incompetent at designing ballots intended to make voting easier (and at deciding whether they are misleading, since it seems to depend on whether one lives in Cook County or Dade County).
The government is apparently incompetent at thinking far enough ahead to find out before an election (or after, for that matter) whether their voting machines work adequately.
The government is apparently incompetent at meeting a deadline, even when that deadline is extended (but government holidays are to be celebrated even if deadlines will be missed as a result).
The government is apparently incompetent at reading comprehension, since the Florida Supreme Court "interpreted" two supposedly inconsistent parts of state law by expanding the least clear part that there may be hand recounts allowed to its greatest possible extent, implying that whatever amount of time was necessary for a complete hand recount (or re-recount, if necessary) in even the largest county must be given, resulting in the complete evisceration of the crystal-clear part of the law that results shall be certified in seven days, pending overseas ballots. This also does little to assure us we are really ruled by a government of laws rather than men.
The government is apparently incompetent at discerning the intent of voters, despite loud claims that it can, since two of the Florida counties interpreted the same pattern of party-line votes in diametrically opposed ways where voting machines recorded no official vote for president ("They must have intended to vote for Gore, since they voted Democratic on other issues" vs. "Since they were able to successfully and clearly record their other votes, the absence of an equally clear presidential vote means they did not intend to vote for Gore"). Of course, it is the claim of certainty rather than the reality of uncertainty that is surprising. I have been married for more than 20 years, and I still am often not sure what my wife means even when she tells me something face-to-face.
The government is apparently incompetent at knowing the law well enough to recognize when important federal issues are at stake. Think of all those would-be government advisers who claimed with virtual certainty that the U.S. Supreme Court would never accept George W. Bush's appeal.
The government is apparently incompetent at doing even its enumerated jobs. After all, most of the lawsuits challenging the Florida results imply that elected canvassing boards are incompetent for the jobs they were elected to, even when any bias that might exist from party affiliation would work in favor of the plaintiffs. Similarly, the secretary of state must be incompetent because she exercised her statutory discretion, but her discretion was somehow "wrong."
The government is apparently incompetent at advancing the general welfare of citizens, since the sides in this conflict settle on diametrically opposed "solutions"to do so (and with precious little attention, even if only rhetorical, given to the general welfare of the country in the process).
Others may want to add to this list of apparent government incompetency illustrated by the vote counting end-game. But these illustrate the point. And it is important to recognize the extent of that incompetency, because once our new set of elected officials are sworn in, they are going to once again start pushing legislation whose underlying rationale is that they know better than the citizens they represent what is good for them and how to achieve it.
"We're from the government and we're here to help" has long been an oxymoronic expression of the dramatic limitations on what the government can do well enough for Americans to want them to. But given that the premise behind much of the legal blizzard that has engulfed the election is that American citizens are too inept to even read and follow ballot directions, the same government that can't run an election may soon be insisting on substituting its judgment for yours in innumerable new ways. I don't know about you, but that is not something that assures me of any more sleep at night than all those lawyers who have been burning the midnight oil in Florida.

Gary M. Galles is professor of economics at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif.



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