- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 9, 2000

A funny thing happened on the way to the finish line of the longest race for the presidency in American history. Thanks to a little-understood mechanism in the Constitution, known as the "Electoral College," a handful of voters in the state of Florida have delayed the election of the first American president to serve in the 21st century by days, if not weeks, or even months.

While this was certainly not their intent, those voters, with the assistance of their counterparts in other so called "battleground" states (those rich in "electoral votes") have repeated what they have been telling pollsters, pundits, and politicians all year. They seem not to like Al Gore and unready to embrace George W. Bush. So they rendered a split decision, awarding the popular vote to one (Mr. Gore) and victory in the electoral college to the other (Mr. Bush).

How the two men comport themselves in the next several days will greatly influence their final verdict on each of them. Mr. Bush has comported himself with all the dignity he has pledged to restore to the presidency. He has shown in public nothing but respect for the system, empathy for his opponent, and an appreciation of the the complexities of the electoral process. He can do nothing to bring this campaign to a speedy end except wait.

Soon, Mr. Gore will have to make the most important decision of his life. He can follow in the tradition of three past "losers" who bowed to constitutional realities and later became president. Or he can prolong his and the nation's agony through court challenges, political intrigue, or petulance, undermining the legitimacy of Mr. Bush's apparent victory, damaging his own reputation, and making it harder for whomever becomes president to lead.

In 1824, the popular hero of the battle of New Orleans, Andrew Jackson, received 42 percent of the popular vote to John Quincy Adams' 32 percent. Henry Clay and William Crawford each received 13 percent. After Jackson received the most votes in the electoral college, but not a majority, the House of Representatives declared Adams president. Charging that Adams had won the office by entering into a "corrupt bargain" with Clay, who had thrown his support to Adams and before becoming his secretary of state, "Old Hickory" catapulted himself into the White House the undisputed popular and electoral vote champion four years later. Although he had won the popular vote in 1888, incumbent president Grover Cleveland was turned out of office. He had scored 49 percent at the polls to his opponent's 48 percent in 1884 and received 219 electoral votes to his opponent's 182.

Four years later, he also pulled 49 percent with substantially more votes (5,540,329 compared to 4,911,017). He lost the electoral vote 233 to 168. The election turned on New York and Indiana, states Cleveland won in his first race and lost in his second. Under the "winner take all" electoral college (that apportions votes to states in accordance with the number of its senators and representatives), Benjamin Harrison became president. Cleveland's supporters urged him to not to yield the White House. Pointing to the size of his popular vote, they insisted that had been won "democratically" and was clearly the people's choice. Rumors circulated of a renewed Civil War, instigated by Southerners, who had disproportionately turned out for the first Democratic president elected after Reconstruction. Cleveland would have none of this. He instructed his supporters that he would abide by the Constitution he had sworn to uphold and stood aside. As Harrison's inauguration neared, Mrs. Cleveland beseeched White House servants not to break anything because she and her husband would be returning in four years. They did.

In 1960, Richard Nixon lost the popular vote to John F. Kennedy by 118,550 votes. Nixon received 49.5 percent of the vote to Kennedy's 49.7 percent. In spite of persistent rumors of vote fraud and voter intimidation in Cook County, Illinois, rural Texas, and urban precincts in New Jersey, Nixon refused to contest the results. He maintained that the last thing the nation needed at the height of the Cold War was disunity at home. His stance cleared the way for Kennedy's triumph in the electoral college 303 to 219.

Eight years later, Nixon, though he received an even lesser share of the popular vote, prevailed at both the ballot box and in the electoral college.

Will Mr. Gore follow the precedents set by Jackson, Cleveland and Nixon? His supporters hint at a different kind of precedent. Some go so far as to suggest Mr. Bush step aside so that the person who received the most votes become president. Others stress that Mr. Gore received more votes than past "winners," including Bill Clinton, as if to question Mr. Bush's claim on the office.

A few hint at a court challenge, which might invalidate the Florida returns and send the election to newly elected House of Representatives. There they, with the help of Gore sympathizers in the media, could pressure representatives to "vote their district" rather than their party. Should any do so, they could flip the vote of their state's delegation. What would such a willingness to prolong the nation's agony say about the eventual victor's concern for those he wishes to lead or of is his willingness to abide by the rules he knew would govern the process? The election of 2000 may be one of those rare occasions when the actions of the loser may have as great an impact on the course of the country as the policies of the winner.

Alvin S. Felzenberg is a visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation, where he directs its Mandate for Leadership 2000 Project.

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