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US Election: Surgeon General Issues Health Warning

Fat lady singers - do not hold your breath! It ain't over yet by a long shot. I refer of course to the two spoiled brats squabbling over the last Playstation 2 in the store, which is what this presidential election has revealed itself as. But when were presidential elections ever anything else? There is no constitutional crisis; just a political one. The nation is not divided against itself over any great issue like civil rights or a war in a foreign land; it is just evenly divided over which shade of beige to paint the White House.

The said "people's house" was the scene this week of a dinner celebrating the 200 years since it was first occupied - a sort of Night of the Undead Presidents, with only Ronnie and Nancy absent, because of Reagan's illness. President Ford reiterated that "the Constitution works", part of his famous phrase in 1974 when Nixon resigned. The rest of the phrase is: This is a government of laws and not of men. Something that Gore and Bush would do well to remember.

And it is precisely because it is a government of laws that the process of electing a president will take some time. Key dates to watch for are December 18 when the electors for each state meet in each state to vote for president and vice president, and January 6 when those ballots are opened in front of the assembled House of Representatives and Senate. In the meantime, on January 3, the new House and Senate will have been sworn in as the 107th Congress - unless the 106th Congress, which meets again on Monday 13th November, votes to change that date. If no presidential candidate wins the majority (270) of the Electoral College votes, then the House immediately votes for President, and the Senate votes for Vice President.

There are laws about this. There are precedents and rules. As Walter Berns says in the 1992 edition of "After the People Vote", adherence to these legally prescribed provisions will produce a president and a vice president with unchallengeable constitutional and legal claims to those offices. Then there's Florida. There is the very real danger - "that has me terrified in my sleep", as one professor of constitutional law said - that a couple of posses of lawyers are going to wade in on this recount and bloody the waters of God's Own Democracy forever.

The initial recount was required under Florida state law because of the closeness of the vote. Another state whose vote is close - Wisconsin - does not require a recount but a disappointed candidate can petition for one, which is what the Republicans have threatened to do if the Democrats bring law suits in Florida or continue to ask for finer and finer recounts. The hand count taking place over this weekend may reveal some results so shocking that even the winning candidate in Wisconsin may want to petition for a recount (including a hand count) if a similar voting system is used there - just to compare the statistical likelihood of the machine count being so far out of whack.

In the 1996 elections, punch card voting systems were used by the greatest proportion - 37.3 percent - of registered voters. In a 1998 report on the Voting Systems Standards Program, the Federal Electoral Commission said that "the current standards remain for the most part adequate and useful for the purpose of ensuring the accuracy and reliability of voting systems." From my own experience at a vote count centre on election night, I think the punch card system is *barely* adequate and useful.

The presidential election has now entered swampland. As one comedian said: You know America's gone through a wormhole when Pat Buchanan is the voice of reason and fairness. He was referring to the Reform Party presidential candidate's statement that if the voters in Palm Beach County voted for him by mistake then the votes weren't his and should go to the person they intended them for. A professor at George Mason University declared: This is weirder than Watergate - in Watergate you knew where it would go, step by step, but this one, you don't.

And in the midst of this, George Bush is busy forming a cabinet and arranging transition meetings as if he has won, while Gore plays touch football with his family on the lawn of the veep mansion. Last night we were treated to the astonishing sight of Bush (with a Band-Aid on his cheek to cover a boil) sitting in a room of prospective cabinet members - who were practically indistinguishable from the cabinet members his father had.

Suddenly the aliens in the mother ship who sometimes broadcast to the radio in my tooth-fillings burst into a childhood song, adding a new verse about the cheekbone being connected to the eardrum. Despite the anatomical dubiousness of this claim, I couldn't help noticing how Mr Bush has, seemingly overnight, developed a penchant for pausing thoughtfully between phrases. Is America 25 electoral votes away from being ruled by a ventriloquist's dummy?

There is a simple, constitutionally correct solution to this: all the electoral college voters not bound by their states to vote for the candidate they represent could - for the good of the nation - decide to vote for the third highest polling candidate instead. The majority of Americans could then hate the President equally, instead of just half of them hating him because he did their candidate out of the presidency. He could form a cabinet consisting of both Democrats and Republicans, an outcome that is already likely if either Bush or Gore wins simply because the House and Senate are so evenly divided. And it saves the whole mess ending up as a vote in the House where the choice is between the three top candidates anyway.

Hmm, maybe I could even sing at Ralph's inauguration. Not that I'm holding my breath.

Lea Barker
Saturday 11 November (PT)

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