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Rosalea Barker: Keep Going Down The Path!

Keep going down the path!

So yells Russell Crowe in the TV trailer for the hostage movie about to open in two days time, "Proof of Life". The presidential stand-off feels like a hostage drama too, with no romantic Meg Ryan-type relief and little proof of life either in the hostages - the American public - or the cruel captors, who have each come across on 60 Minutes this week as passionless to a fault. At least Estrada's drama involves mistresses, mansions, money and malt.

I'm increasingly relying on Bella as my barometer of public opinion. She's the kind of southern woman you'd expect to see with her foot planted firmly in the small of Miss Scarlett's back while she laces up her stays and dispenses pragmatic advice. "Have you ever been to Florida?" she asked me in the lunch room the day after the election. "It's hot," she said with a significant look in her eye, seeming to imply that it wasn't just the weather there that's balmy.

Yesterday she said: "My parents didn't have the vote, so of course I take voting seriously and think every vote should be counted, but it's gone on too long." That, even in the face of the evidence she had witnessed right here in PC California of African American voters being told to go away because their names weren't on the list for that polling place when they'd been registered and voted in that district for years. I don't know what she thought of the huge rally of African American and union Democrat supporters outside the courthouse in Tallahassee today where the individual suits alleging vote fraud are being heard.

On ABC's Nightline tonight, the host said that the fat lady is warming up in the wings so the end must be nigh, and his reporter gave the first clear exposition I've seen on broadcast TV of the case involving the county election officials who allowed Republicans to write in the Voter Identification Numbers on absentee ballot applications. The Republicans had sent out preprinted forms to individual Republican-registered voters to make it easy for them to put in an absentee ballot but had printed the voter's date of birth where the VIN should have been.

When you register to vote in the US you have to make a choice of registering as a Democrat, a Republican, a third party supporter, or an independent. This is important because of the primary vote that is held in March to see which of the potential presidential candidates for each party is the more popular. If you're registered Democrat then you get to choose between, for example, Al Gore and Bill Bradley. The Republicans got to choose between George W. Bush and John McCain. Lesser lights might also run for their party's presidential nomination but for all practical purposes a primary race is between two people in each party and only people registered as voters for that party can make the choice. (Except in California, but we won't even start down that path. The US Supreme Court had to be called in.)

So that is why the Republicans in Florida had their mailing list with all their registered voters' details and could send out those postcards in an effort to "get out the vote". Many, many people in the US vote using absentee ballots. Each county has it's own ballot paper and many people live in one county and work in another making it more convenient to do an absentee ballot and send it in than to try to get to a polling booth before or after work. So there's nothing sinister in the use of absentee ballots. Just something illegal about sending them out in the first place. Under Florida law they need to be requested by the voter, not sent out like junk mail.

Strike one. Then there's the matter of the election supervisor in that particular county letting the Republicans overwrite the DOB with the VIN, turning invalid votes into valid ones. Strike two. Or so you'd think. But incredibly the Bush argument is that just because someone else tampered with their votes, those voters who used the postcard absentee ballots shouldn't be punished by having their votes thrown out and not counted. In fact, the media are saying, no one says the wrong thing WASN'T done - they're just arguing about what should NOW be done.

The words that stick in my mind came from a political analyst who was speaking about this case before it happened, saying of the judge that he was sure she wouldn't want to affect the outcome of a presidential election by "her little decision". It's simply astonishing the extent to which Americans think that a presidential election is some kind of holy thing that has rules of its own when it comes to deciding what's permissible. It's not permissible, for example, for a third party contender to come along and upset the applecart by offering the voters - God forbid - a meaningful choice. But it is permissible to tamper with people's ballots and get away with it.

Meanwhile, John McCain is set to have more actual power than either Bush or Gore will have because he is a member of the 50-50 Senate and his vote could be crucial in deciding some policies. Considering that he's co-sponsored legislation with Al Gore before today and is strongly in favour of campaign finance reform, the Republicans might have to change their tune a little bit. He's even in favour of a 10-10 split on the commerce committee he's chair of.

As for all this talk of a bipartisan coalition! Yeah, right. It's only a matter of time before someone defects or resigns or the next election for the House of Representatives comes around in 2 years time. In the meantime Congress will be full of more swingers than a key party at the presidential palace in you-know-where.

Lea Barker California Wednesday 6 December PT

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