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US Elections: Austin, We Have A Problem

Do you remember "Soap", the TV serial that began each week with someone recapping what had happened last week and then saying: "Confused? You won't be after this week's episode"? Well, substitute 'hour' for 'week' and 'Vote' for 'Soap' and you've pretty much got the idea of what it's like to watch TV news bulletins at the moment here in America.

Confusion has become such an expected part of the discourse that on Friday I mistook a printing problem for the funniest cartoon yet. It was in the "First new metro daily of the 21st century" and was headed "What Happens Next? A citizen's guide to presidential succession". That much, at least was pretty clear but the rest of the graphic looked as though a band of presidential pixies had stomped through it with their little square boots on and it was completely unreadeadable. You can see why I thought that WAS the cartoon.

But in this morning's Sunday edition the San Francisco Examiner has printed it again, minus the pixelation, though the paper still is having problems with its graphics. You might wonder why a newspaper with a 113-year-history has suddenly become the first new metro daily of the 21st century, but it's because the Hearst Corporation, which owned it all those years, decided to buy the San Francisco Chronicle and was hit with an anti-monopoly protest. The corporation relinquished the SFE (plus its library and a $66 million dollar subsidy) to publisher Ted Fang, whose family has several community papers in its stable, and the new daily came out on Wednesday.

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Well, it kinda came out on Wednesday. Fang decided to change it to a morning paper instead of an afternoon one and all the early morning TV news bulletins were poised to show it rolling off the presses. Instead we saw printers lounging around on rolls of newsprint waiting for someone to deliver good old-fashioned plates to the factory because the printing company's computer couldn't read the electronic files it had been supplied with. KRON4 - naturally, as it's part of the Chronicle media group - lingered on this story rather lovingly and in the evening bulletin even had their printing people going through the Examiner page by page pointing out all the bad points, like type weight inconsistent across the columns.

It brought to mind the carping that attended another media event some 2 and a quarter centuries ago. A staymaker cum failed excise man from England, newly arrived in Pennsylvania, published a little pamphlet entitled "Common Sense" under an agreement that the publisher, Robert Bell, should keep half the profits and give the other half to buy mittens for American troops fighting the French up in Canada. Bell wasn't satisfied with this and sent a bill to the author demanding payment for publishing it, so the author went elsewhere for the second edition of this runaway bestseller. Bell then roundly dismissed the new edition saying it was printed on poor paper using small type.

The author was Thomas Paine and that pamphlet and many more he wrote afterwards were the melding force that convinced waverers that America should not be a colony of Britain. He was the first to use the term "the United States of America", in one of his "Crisis" pamphlets during the War of Independence, and it is to his famous phrase "the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot" that some of today's commentators turn when asked how long the battle for Florida will go on. They will not, "in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country" as each sees it.

And they all see it differently. The Democrats say that Gore said he'd fight for the people and that's what he's doing in Florida - fighting for the right of people to have their vote counted - and he won't give up even in the face of organized mobs of Republicans intimidating the Miami-Dade canvassing board into giving up. That wasn't a mob, reply the Republicans: "America was designed to hear many voices; even those who wear button-down shirts", and if Gore cares so much about the people why did Democrats issue a 5-page memo describing how to disqualify absentee military votes?

It comes to a minor head tonight or tomorrow, of course, with the expected certification by Katherine Harris of the Florida election results. But no-one's planning any celebrations, their sights being fixed on Friday's United States Supreme Court hearing, which C-Span is trying to persuade the justices to allow them to televise. But you should not think of the Katherine Harris and the Supreme Court as being part of two separate spheres of Government. Rather they are part of a Russian doll, with Harris being the outer doll and the Constitution being the inner one.

The Constitution established only one court and that was the US Supreme Court, which is the second most innermost doll in my little word-graphic. That court's only functions are to rule on whether the federal and state laws are constitutional, whether the president's actions are constitutional, and to settle problems between states. Each state has its own constitution - the next doll - and all state laws must agree with that, so it is the function of each state's supreme court to see that such is the case. And on the outside of the state supreme court doll is the state legislature doll, which is where the bulk of the law-making powers of "we the people" reside.

The case in the US Supreme Court on Friday is to do with whether the Florida Supreme Court interfered wrongly with those law-making powers by choosing between two conflicting, unclear sections in Florida law regarding the validity of manual recounts. Title IX, Chapter 103 of the Florida statutes is very clear, however, on one point: "The Department of State shall certify as elected the presidential electors of the candidates for President and Vice President who receive the highest number of votes." And that is the part of the story that will be delivered by Katherine Harris.

Meantime, anyone with any common sense is buying the coins being sold at showing Gore on one side and Bush on the other. And subscribing to SFE. She's the voice of the new California, which seriously does believe America was designed to hear many voices and will "celebrate diversity through unity". Go, Ted!

Lea Barker
Sunday 26 November, PT

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