Column: Election is tough one to explain - to anyone

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I spent more than 20 years of my working life abroad, trying to explain American-style democracy to foreign audiences. But I'm sure glad that I don't have to explain last Tuesday's presidential election to a skeptical foreign audience.

In this election, the truth is stranger than fiction with the final outcome to be decided by a handful of overseas absentee ballots in Florida.

This would never happen on "The West Wing," where the ultra-liberal Hollywood establishment would re-elect "President" Martin Sheen by acclamation. It would be so much easier that way with no need to recount the ballots or run the whole thing through the mysterious Electoral College, which might just elect the candidate with the fewest popular votes. So how did it come to this?

A machine recount of Nevada-style punchcard ballots in Florida last week gave the Republican candidate, Texas Gov. George W. Bush - whose brother Jeb just happens to be the governor of Florida - a lead of a few hundred votes. That would have given "Dubya" Bush Florida's 25 electoral votes and put him over the 270 he needs to become the president-elect.

The Democrats weren't about to let that happen, however; they immediately cried "foul," requested a by-hand recount in four counties, demanded that no winner be certified until some 2,000 overseas absentee ballots are counted this week and threatened a series of lawsuits that could tie-up the electoral process for months.

Actually, several of the Democrats' demands are valid, especially since their candidate, Vice President Al Gore, received about 200,000 more popular votes than Bush nationwide out of nearly 100 million votes that were cast. If my math is correct, that's a "victory" margin of two-tenths of one percent. That's how close it was. Gore got more popular votes, but Bush won 30 of 50 states, including Nevada. Although California, Oregon and Washington lean toward the Democrats, the Midwest and Mountain West are mostly Republican these days, as is the South.

Enter the Electoral College, written into the Constitution by our Founding Fathers to ensure that small, sparsely populated states like Nevada don't get steamrollered by large, populous states like California and New York. Yes, I know that California and Nevada didn't exist in 1776, but these are merely examples. For the first time since 1888, a candidate with fewer popular votes could win the presidency in the Electoral College, where each state's electoral votes are determined by the number of representatives and senators it sends to Congress - in our case, four.

In Nevada, Bush beat Gore 49 to 46 percent with pesky Green Party candidate Ralph Nader garnering 2 percent. As far as Nader is concerned, Bush and Gore are two corporate-controlled peas in a pod. On the other hand, our own Sen. Harry Reid called Nader an "egotistic bum" and said he was pleased that Nader failed to obtain the 5 percent of the national vote that would have qualified the Greens for millions of dollars worth of federal campaign funds in 2004.

Perhaps Reid was thinking of the 97,000 votes that Nader polled in Florida, most of which would have gone to Gore in a normal year. But if the vice president loses an election that he should have won easily in a time of peace and prosperity, I think two other politicians contributed to his defeat: Gore himself and the impeached Bill Clinton.

The bottom line is that we may not know who our next president will be until the Electoral College meets in mid-December and all of the Florida lawsuits are settled. Merry Christmas!

On the local scene, my wife and I were election workers at the Brewery Arts Center and once again, it was an exercise in grassroots democracy. There were no fistfights and everyone was in good spirits, even our harried and multi-talented City/County Clerk Alan Glover, who came by to extract a ballot card that had jammed inside a voting machine. He demonstrated admirable manual dexterity under pressure. Also, it was a pleasure to see so many young, first-time voters at the polls this year.

Carson City remains a Republican town, as it was when I first arrived here in 1962. I can remember then-Gov. Grant Sawyer and his wife, Bette, fresh in from Elko, where he had been the district attorney, looking everywhere for fellow Democrats. It was a lonely search.

Last Tuesday, Carson favored Bush by 20 points, 57 to 37 percent. So I guess I shouldn't be surprised that our capable Democratic Assemblywoman Bonnie Parnell, a star in the 1999 Legislature, eked out a narrow victory over her Republican opponent, political newcomer Jeanne Simons.

And on the state level, perhaps someone can explain to me how Nevadans could approve both Question 2, which outlaws homosexual "marriages," and Question 9, which legalizes "medical marijuana." The Christian Coalition and Moral Majority will applaud our decision on Question 2 while the neo-hippie Burning Man crowd will be delighted that we opened the door to legalized drugs. Go figure!

In closing, I'd like to congratulate all the candidates, winners and losers alike, who participated in the electoral process. If our participatory democracy is to serve as an example to the rest of the world - and I think it should - then more Americans should go to the polls. That so many don't is a sad commentary on our modern day priorities, in which too many of us pay more attention to computers, cell phones and SUVs than to our national leaders who make critical decisions about war and peace, life, death and taxes.

(Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.)


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