Florida Site of National Election Controversies Once Before

By Cheryl K. Chumley | July 7, 2008 | 8:27pm EDT

(CNSNews.com) - This is not the first time a Florida brouhaha over ballot tallies has delayed the victory of a federal candidate.

In 1988, the battle between senatorial candidates Republican Connie Mack and Democrat Buddy MacKay was so tight and intense that the winner was not decided until Nov. 15, eight days after votes were cast, according to records from the Senate historical office in Washington, D.C.

Candidates were forced to wait until absentee ballots were received, and even then, the tallies remained so close that a recount ensued.

The final count gave Mack a 33,612 vote lead over MacKay, in an election in which more than 4.5 million ballots were cast.

"I was [working as a staff member] in the Senate in those days, and obviously it was quite close," said Curt Smith, the vice president and chief operating officer for Hudson Institute and a congressional staff member from 1983 to 1988. "The recount took eight days, and as a result of that, my recollection is that's why there's an automatic recount under [Florida] state law now."

Florida law dictates automatic election recounts when one candidate carries a final lead of a half-percent or less of the total ballots cast.

The tone within the Senate during the 1988 recount was tense, Smith recalled, because of a similar situation that had occurred between two House candidates from Indiana four years earlier.

In 1984, Republican Rick McIntire and Democrat Frank McClosky vied for control of what is now called the "bloody eighth" district, in a race that culminated in a controversial decision months later.

"McIntire won, the secretary of state certified him as winner, but then the House got involved," Smith said, explaining how Democratic Speaker Tip O'Neill, exercising "pure, political power," came forward and "asserted the House's constitutional power to be judge of all elections and seated the Democrat."

Specifically, McClosky was seated because O'Neill's appointed committee disqualified a portion of the ballots. The House members then voted along party lines for their candidate of choice; the Democrats won.

For the first time since the Civil War, Smith said, Republicans walked from the House in disgust.

"So the tone was [in 1988], here we go again," he said.

With Mack and MacKay, the race was decided by the state rather than Congress, and was handled much more "appropriately" and swiftly, Smith said, adding that he expected the presidential dilemma to be resolved in a similarly quick fashion rather than in the way the 1984 contest was handled, which left the eighth district without elected representation for several months.

Still, the possibility does exist for a lengthy debate resulting in a court challenge, said Michael Franc, vice president of government relations at The Heritage Foundation, and that could effectively throw the country into a state of confusion for weeks.

"I think it's incumbent to have the recount, but not this second and third carping," Franc said. "On Gore's side, there's an awful lot of spinning and carping, and I don't hear the Republicans making a case for what they could. So I think it's incumbent to have it, but only if you have it on both sides."

The GOP could argue the media reacted favorably to the Democrats in Florida by giving the state to Gore before polls in the historically Republican panhandle area were closed, he said. That region of Florida is on Central time; major media broadcast Gore as the state's winner one hour and three minutes before polls closed in the western area of the state.

"Polls closed in Florida at 7:00," Franc said. "The media called it at 6:57, but in the panhandle, it was 5:57. Probably a lot of Republican minded voters didn't bother to vote after that."

Franc blamed news desk "amateurs" for the premature announcements in Florida, and said Republicans, in response to Gore's demand for a recount, could rightly raise the panhandle issue and request review.

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