Democracy v. Process

The case is submitted


On 60 Minutes this Sunday, Vice President Al Gore promised to support George W. Bush if the Texas governor is sworn in next January 20. Gore looked dignified, reasonable, and above politics. All he wants, after all, is for democracy to be honored.

The next day his lawyers filed cases in state, federal, small claims, and Larry Elder's Moral Court arguing that in 2001, due to a quirk of the moon, there is no January 20.

Don't rule such a scenario out. Although Monday's court rulings certainly winnowed Gore's options, strange things are being asserted all the time these days. "Ultimately, the democratic process may take precedence over democracy itself," writes the Washington Post's Richard Cohen in a column predicting that George W. Bush will not only be a minority president, "but a kind of accidental one as well."

As absurd as it may sound to some, Cohen's statement crystallizes a fundamental difference in the philosophies driving the Republican and Democratic parties. It's a difference that often plays out on the national stage, be it impeachment or our ongoing election.

If we give Republicans partial credit for their lofty after-dinner-speech rhetoric about the rule of law (if not their actual day-to-day machinations), it's fair to say that Cohen's statement is unintelligible to them. The democratic process is democracy, just as the rules of baseball constitute the game. The end or the goal in a real sense is the process, because only adherence to an established process over time, regardless of the results produced in any given instance, can secure our democracy and our liberty.

Democrats of a "progressive" stripe have a slightly different view of democracy. For them, the democratic process is a means to an end. If that end isn't necessarily their guy or particular issue winning in each instance, it is always what they consider to be justice. Hence, the process of democracy must in each instance serve what they define as a truly democratic, if not Democratic, end. (This views explains such unintentionally hilarious headlines as this one from the Los Angeles Times: "Bosnian vote a setback for democracy.") Since Gore and his supporters honestly believe that more Floridians wanted to vote for Gore, the process of democracy, especially the counting of all votes the same way, thwarts democracy.

This explains the need for changing the standards used to determine what constitutes a vote. Counties must count whatever it takes to get the just result, which, as Gore's supporters repeat often, is that Al Gore won the popular vote in Florida (after all, they say, he won a plurality in national election too). Both exit polls and academic statistical analysis show Gore won, Americans are constantly reminded. It's only the counting of the actual ballots that somehow doesn't come through for the vice president.

Such an analysis is being generous to Gore and his supporters–and to Republicans. In reality, there is partisan blending of these categories, and it's rare these days, as it probably always has been, for anyone to take a stand on principle that actually hurts his interest. An automatic machine recount is part of the process, as is the possibility of a manual recount. So Democrats can justly argue that Republicans, by working to thwart a hand count, are using the legal process to manipulate the democratic process to thwart democracy, and on and on.

Still, Cohen's belief that there is some knowable democratic outcome outside of the one produced by the democratic process—and that we know in this case what it is even before the process has played out –is shared by many. It's an impressive gesture, since it takes Gore's willingness to make whatever argument he needs to win and wraps it up in a worldview that some might even consider principled while simultaneously blinding the vice president and his partisans to their self-serving pleadings.

The mantra that "every vote needs to be counted" is the democratic imperative only in areas where those votes are likely to be cast by Democrats. But if the votes come from military ships, where they don't use postage meters, then it's no problem to throw those ballots out. It's fine to pay weary county workers to stare at unpunched ballots and divine voter intent-a job machines thankfully took over decades ago. Otherwise, people too weak, stupid, confused, and intimidated to follow the directions posted in the voting booth would be disenfranchised. But if Republican Party members filled in a voter number for folks who didn't even have the chance to do it themselves on a ballot application, then we must junk the ballots they cast.

The absentee-ballot case in Seminole County threatens to expose both Gore and the Republicans as something less than principled. At this late hour, Gore's best chance for election victory lies not in convincing a judge to "enfranchise" thousands of people by eyeballing their ballots in a hand count. No, his shot at the Oval Office rests on disenfranchising thousands of Florida voters whose obscure intent need not be discerned because it's marked clearly on absentee ballots.

The catch is that Republican Party officials filled in voter ID numbers on the applications for absentee ballots after discovering that a printing error meant the voters had no chance to do it themselves. Such extra effort, of course, is the Republicans' own misstep: If fixed rules and processes are so important, why is it OK to bend them this one time, especially when their own party is likely to gain from the action? A Democratic activist is suing to shred the votes of those aided individuals, along with others whose votes can't be separated out. It's enough to swing the state. Gore chose not to join the suit, recognizing that it undercuts his lofty pretense to wanting every vote to count. But as he gets desperate to make sure that the democratic process doesn't thwart democracy, the vice president and his advisers are warming to the idea of throwing out these unambiguous votes.

"The facts are clear, the law is explicit and the remedy available," Iowa's Democrat Gov. Tom Vilsack told the Washington Post's David Broder. Illinois Democrat Sen. Richard Durbin was on message as well when Broder caught up with him. "I think Gore will bring it to finality with the pending absentee ballot cases…and that will be it."

Sure enough, right on cue, Al Gore stepped up to a bank of microphones on Tuesday and proclaimed his non-support support for the lawsuit. Framing the issue as one of unfairness to Democrats, the man who would be president intoned, "More than enough votes were potentially taken away from Democrats, because they were not given the same access that Republicans were [given]."

It just may turn out that the process of democracy might work for democracy after all.