Aftermath of election deadlock should provide opportunity for change

Posted: Sunday, December 17, 2000

"I'm optimistic that we can change the tone in Washington, D.C. and I hope the long wait of the last five weeks will heighten a desire to move beyond the bitterness and partisanship of the recent past.

"Our nation must rise above a house divided. Americans share hopes and goals and values far more important than any political disagreements. Republicans want the best for our nation. And so do Democrats. Our votes may differ, but not our hopes."

-- President-elect George W. Bush,

from his acceptance speech

"This has been an extraordinary election. But in one of God's unforeseen paths, this belatedly broken impasse can point us all to a new common ground, for its very closeness can serve to remind us that we are one people with a shared history and a shared destiny."

--Vice President Al Gore,

from his concession speech

President-elect Bush and Vice President Al Gore both said just the right things in just the right way in their respective acceptance and concession speeches last week. They were gracious and conciliatory. They spoke of unity and healing. They spoke of moving beyond the uncomfortably close election and taking care of the nation's business.

All of which needed to be said.

The entire country, if not the whole world, surely breathed a collective sigh of relief to have the outcome of this tortuous presidential race finally decided.

Nevertheless, while Americans must get over the divisiveness of the race (and the sooner, the better), we must not forget the important issues raised by the election and its aftermath.

In the five-plus weeks since the Nov. 7 election and the uncertainty that followed it, the ever-present question was "What next?" The country should continue to ask that question and demand answers as the transition proceeds from Bill Clinton's Democratic administration to George W. Bush's Republican one.

There, perhaps, has never been a better opportunity for change.

Americans have seen flaws in "the system" never before highlighted in such a pronounced way. Things we once took for granted -- a straightforward election process, for example -- we no longer can without at least a touch of cynicism.

We not only will disappoint ourselves, but we also will dilute the ideals and convictions on which this country was founded if we allow our relief at the election's end to overshadow our desire to put an end to business as usual in Washington, D.C. Surely, if there was one mandate to come out of the too-close-to-call presidential race, it was this: Americans have had enough of the partisanship that has marked the workings of politics in the nation's

capital, and they want to see some changes.

Unfortunately, every turn in the just completed election -- from the debates to the campaigning to the aftermath of the voting -- was marked by partisan politics. Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats can claim any moral high ground on this particular issue. If this country is to experience healing and unity, however, both parties need to make cooperation a priority in word and deed.

For all the talk about how this election reinforced the importance of each and every vote, there are a whole lot of people who believe their vote did not count. Bush's ultimate victory over Gore, despite Gore winning the popular vote, is just one reason. The mess is Florida and the ensuing spotlight on "butterfly" ballots, chads and all other manner of election minutia is another. Florida's problems were highlighted because of the closeness of the state's vote and the number of electoral votes at stake. But the same problems can be found in other places. It makes one wonder if the United States should start importing impartial poll watchers from other countries to ensure free and fair elections.

A uniform ballot as well as a uniform method to determine how statewide recounts are conducted would be a start to restoring faith in the voting process. U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican, already has indicated he plans to introduce a model statute to determine how statewide recounts should be conducted and, if machines fail, how to determine voter intent. It's a good first step.

Beyond the mechanics of voting, however, this past election also has highlighted the need for campaign finance reform. After what the country has just experienced, no one can say with a straight face that the process is open to everyone. It's dominated by money; and the two principal parties attract all the money. It's impossible to measure what price the country pays because the "business as usual" politicians are unwilling to address this issue.

Finally, with the campaign season still fresh in our minds, and before the 2004 election, Americans would do well to press for an opportunity to hear all candidates through the debate process. Third-party candidates should not be excluded because of their lack of money or clout. A healthy discussion of different ideas makes this country stronger; stifling the discussion weakens it.

For all the weaknesses of the system spotlighted in this election, Americans still should take great pride in the fact that we all survived. It's a good, not perfect, system. It will be stronger if President-elect Bush, members of Congress and the departing Clinton administration will put their attention to doing what's right for the nation. The whole world is watching. It's time to put away the divisiveness of partisanship and show by our actions what it means to be the United States of America, the greatest democracy in the world.

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