Keep alive the call for election reform

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- While many other leading Democrats are curbing their bitterness about the election in the interest of doing business with the new Republican president, the man just elected as Democratic National chairman, Terry McAuliffe, is telling it with the bark off.

In accepting the new party post, super fund-raiser McAuliffe flatly claimed that President Bush seized the presidency through high-handedness in Florida. He pledged to "transform the anger about Florida into energy" to regain Democratic control of Congress in 2002 and the White House in 2004.


His words were in sharp contrast to the bland remarks of Democratic congressional leaders Sen. Tom Daschle and Rep. Dick Gephardt, who before the DNC warbled sweetly about seeking "common ground" with Mr. Bush and concentrating on "governing."

That's no doubt how it should be, considering each man's political responsibility. All three agree that Mr. Bush was constitutionally elected by having Florida's 25 electoral votes certified for him and thus gaining a majority by a single vote in the Electoral College. But Mr. McAuliffe is not going to let fellow Democrats forget that Al Gore was the popular vote winner by more than half a million ballots.


It's a reminder that is justifiable as Republicans speak loosely about the "mandate" Mr. Bush received for his huge tax cut proposal and other items on his campaign agenda last fall. The new president, not surprisingly, never mentions that he lost the popular vote, but his conspicuous reaching out to elected Democrats indicates it does cross his mind from time to time.

Mr. McAuliffe, on NBC News' "Meet the Press" Sunday, referred to the recounting in Florida being conducted by newspapers, predicting it will show that Mr. Gore should have won Florida and hence the presidency. That and a quarter will get him a copy of a newspaper reporting those unofficial recount results. Most voters likely will side with the Republicans in saying, in effect, "So what?"

But the actual popular vote cast on Nov. 7 and officially counted did give Mr. Gore 539,497 more ballots than Mr. Bush. Although it represented only about one-half of 1 percent of the total vote, these were real people casting real votes, not some pollster's divination based on exit sampling. Half a million is hardly chicken feed, especially when it is recalled John F. Kennedy won the White House in 1960 with only 112,000 more popular votes than Richard M. Nixon.

Mr. Gephardt, unlike the brash Mr. McAuliffe, chose to observe that "the presidential race was a tie." Or, as the pollsters like to say, "a statistical tie," meaning that the result comes within the margin of error in their calculations of projected results. But that is a poll-taker's gobbledygook, employed to claim that the voter survey is in the ballpark of what the actual result will be.

Using the hard numbers of votes actually cast and counted did not, with all respect to Mr. Gephardt, produce a tie. Mr. Gore won the popular vote, but it was his misfortune that the Constitution still includes the horse-and-buggy Electoral College to decide the winner.

Continued harping by Mr. McAuliffe that Mr. Gore won that popular vote and probably deserved to win Florida and the Electoral College vote, too, may well keep the Democratic faithful energized as he turns to the task of engineering a Democratic comeback. But it will also keep feeding the Republican taunt of sore loser against the Democratic Party, which seems to have some resonance, especially as Mr. Bush continues to extend his hand, stylistically if not programmatically.

The popular-vote argument obviously can't change the election outcome. But it can keep alive the case for revamping or eliminating the Electoral College -- a much-needed reform that already seems to be getting buried in all the focus on improving voting, vote-counting machines, ballots and voting hours.

Already, congressional leaders in both parties appear to be running away from Electoral College reform, concerned that the smaller states will never swallow it. Getting rid of the chads and dimples is an easier target than taking on the greater culprit that can deny the will of the voters.


Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington Bureau. His latest book is "No Way to Pick a President" (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1999).