Voters' gripe shows fraud in rhetoric hard to prove


WASHINGTON -- In politics as in prizefighting, a familiar complaint from the loser after the verdict is in is often "We wuz robbed." Candidates and their managers, just as fist-fighters and their corner men, can frequently be counted on to claim that a low blow or some subterfuge has resulted in their being jobbed.

So it is with the group of 250 Oregon voters who complained to the Senate Rules and Administration Committee that Republican Sen. Bob Packwood of Oregon in effect hit them below the belt in his successful re-election campaign against former Democratic Rep. Les AuCoin last November.

They argued that Mr. Packwood intentionally misled them before Election Day in denying he had made unwanted sexual advances to numerous women going back to the 1970s.

After the election, when a strong case against Mr. Packwood on the allegations was offered by the Washington Post and other newspapers, buttressed by a platoon of women coming forward to give testimony to the charges, the Oregon voters petitioned the committee to investigate. They wanted the Senate, which has the power under the Constitution, to deny Mr. Packwood his seat on grounds that he had for all practical purposes committed a fraud against them.

The committee has now summarily thrown out the plea by a vote of 16-0, citing the reasonable question of whether Mr. Packwood would certainly have lost, as the petitioners claimed, had what came out after the election been known before it.

Mr. Packwood, running for a fifth term, beat Mr. AuCoin by 77,604 out of 1,374,306 votes, close if not quite a cliff-hanger. But Democratic Sen. Wendell Ford of Kentucky had it right in saying it is "very difficult to read the minds of the voters after the fact."

What probably clinched the case against the Oregon voters' petition was the observation of freshman Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California that going forward with a full investigation could "open a Pandora's box" wherein any defeated candidate or group of voters who felt misled by a winning candidate's campaign statements could cry fraud.

While they are not exact parallels, voters who cast ballots for President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 could have made a case of election fraud because he said in his campaign against Republican Barry Goldwater that he was not going to send NTC American boys to fight in an Asian war; or that Bill Clinton's should be invalidated because he promised a middle-class tax cut but then proposed tax increases instead.

Mr. Packwood is not by any means out of the woods. The Senate Select Committee on Ethics is going forward with its own investigation into whether he violated Senate rules with unwanted approaches to women, some of whom were Senate employees, and whether as charged he made efforts to intimidate some from talking to the news media.

If the ethics committee finds sufficient grounds, the Senate could deny him the seat he holds pending the outcome of its investigation. But whereas he could have been tossed out by a simple majority vote for election fraud as the Oregon voters wanted, it will take two-thirds of the Senate to bounce him for unethical conduct under Senate rules.

The lawyer for the Oregon voters charged after the Rules Committee's unanimous vote that the committee members "don't want to look at this kind of behavior because they want to be able to engage in the same kind of behavior to win elections."

That is putting a harder edge on the matter than seems warranted, although incumbents generally don't like to rule out any action that might put constraints on how they might campaign for re-election.

The fact is that if every candidate for public office could be denied election because he or she misled or didn't level completely with the voters during a campaign, it might be tough sometimes to muster a quorum.

Fraud is a serious charge in politics that needs to be established, not surmised, to justify reversing the vote of the electorate. And the ethics committee is the proper place to judge Mr. Packwood's conduct.

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