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What's at stake?

10/29/04 12:00AM By Barrie Dunsmore
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(Host) As Americans are about to choose the next President of the United States, commentator Barrie Dunsmore wonders if the system in place for making that choice is up to the task.

(Dunsmore) Recently, Jimmy Carter, the man who's become known as the best ex-President this country ever had, expressed concern over the voting procedures of the state of Florida for next week's election. He wasn't sure the Florida vote would meet the test of being fair and democratic -- a test Carter and other respected international figures use when they go to monitor elections, usually in third world countries, where the commitment to democracy may be suspect. Governor Jeb Bush cried foul, though given Florida's recent history I'd be inclined to believe Carter.

But even considering how important Florida is, and may well be again, there is every reason to believe there may be equally troubling problems with the voting system in several of the key states where the outcome could be decided by less than half a percentage point. Of course, it's when elections are so very close that anomalies become apparent.

Court battles are already underway in half a dozen of those states regarding the eligibility of perhaps hundreds of thousands of voters. Almost certainly, different standards are going to apply in different states; for example when it comes to counting provisional ballots -- a new procedure intended to be an improvement to cover voters whose names somehow didn't get on the rolls. As we've been hearing for weeks, both parties stand poised with literally thousands of lawyers, ready to challenge all kinds of voting irregularities.

Certainly, the equal protection clause of the Constitution, invoked by the Supreme Court to give Bush his victory in 2000, will figure prominently in many anticipated law suits.

And if that weren't enough to create uncertainty, once again there is the old fly in the ointment of democracy known as the Electoral College.

The other day, the Washington Post ran its computers and discovered 33 combinations from which the 11 so-called battleground states could produce an Electoral College vote of 269-269 -- one vote short of victory. These aren't all likely scenarios, but they are not far fetched either. And in the case of a tie, a single electoral defection -- in other words, a Kerry elector deciding to vote for Bush, or vice versa -- which is legal -- would result in the election being determined by one single person -- who is not even on the Supreme Court.

Finally, of course, if the Electoral College ends up deadlocked -- on the basis of the 12th Amendment, the decision of who gets to be President is made by the House of Representatives, where each state gets a vote -- a formula that would guarantee a Bush victory. For about half the country, that would make the second Bush term even more illegitimate than the first.

And so -- if by Wednesday morning we actually know who the new President will be, it will either be because of a miracle -- or because of a totally unexpected landslide. To my mind, that's not really good enough in a country that purports to be the world's foremost democracy.

This is Barrie Dunsmore.
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