November 27, 2000

Cornell Community as Split Over Legal Issues as Rest of Country

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In this year’s post-election turmoil, arguments over issues have given way to fundamental questions of process. Talks of ballot forms, chads, certification deadlines and voter preparedness have replaced debates over social security and nationalized health care.

“People are recognizing that democracy isn’t something that’s a given, but something that has to be performed everytime,” said Aoife Naughton grad.

The question of legal legitimacy has become central as conflicting interpretations of Florida election law make their way into the U.S. Supreme Court.

Standing on the side of statutory law, Prof. Jeremy Rabkin, government, drew attention to the irony of the Florida court’s decision to extend the recount deadline. “Katherine Harris’ original deadline at least had the virtue of being in statute. The Florida judges — on the other hand — replaced one ‘arbitrary’ deadline with another,” he said.

The Florida Supreme Court still had the authority to act as it did, said Prof. Richard Bensel, government, even if the logic of their decision is now being questioned. “All laws have some inherent ambiguity attached to them. In this, as in many cases, a public official must first act (i.e. certify election results) in order for the issues to be appealed to the courts,” he said.

President of Cornell Democrats Mike Moschella ’02 said any appeals Gore might make to the courts are legally sound as they are rooted in support of voter enfranchisement.

Acknowledging that legal ambiguity has made things difficult for both parties, a number of faculty agree that if this election has taught a single lesson, it is the importance of clear and consistent election law.

“Going into the recount, the parties should have agreed on the rules before hand. They deliberately chose to keep the rules ambiguous. In the end, to improvise rules during proceedings is the worst way to go,” Rabkin said.

“Hopefully, this will lead to the standardization of election law across the country, perhaps the standardizing of ballots and the nationalizing of recount laws,” said Republican activist Amy Gershkoff ’02.

Prof. Elizabeth Sanders, government, emphasized the need to make voting less of an obstacle for the American people.

“Financial incentives are sorely needed to encourage states to better administer the ‘Motor Voter’ registration law. Many low income and other late and first time voters were discouraged or turned away in delays in getting registrants onto voter lists,” Sanders said. She also suggested that the nation should follow Massachusetts’s lead in furnishing grants and loans for new voting machines and more election personnel to assist inexperienced voters.

Considering ways in which the post-election process may affect presidential appointments, neither Democrats nor Republicans believe that appointing cabinet members from the opposite party would genuinely help unite a divided government. “Having a Republican Secretary of Defense did little to endear Clinton to the GOP congress,” Sanders said.

Citing examples from the Kennedy and Nixon administrations, Theodore Lowi, the John L. Senior Professor of American Institutions, said that it was probable that the next president would make similar gestures of unity, but these would have more to do with the aesthetics of power than with serious political strategy.

Both Democratic and Republican faculty believe that a drawn out post-election process would pose few additional problems for a president working in an already divided government.

Both Lowi and Rabkin spoke for the voters’ ability to recover quickly from political disruption. “People could support a president after an impeachment, they can support a president after this,” Rabkin said.

“There is a great tendency to overstate the nature of these kinds of crises,” Lowi said. “It has had the positive effect of inspiring more curiosity in our political system, but it is a suspenseful moment more than a critical one.”

Archived article by Sana Krasikov