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For History’s Sake, Preserve Florida’s Presidential Ballots

by Bruce Craig on Dec 21, 2000

         For a majority of Americans, the "legitimacy" of George W. Bush's
election to the American presidency is destined to remain an unsettled and
unsettling question.

         In years to come, hundreds of articles and books will flow from
the pens of historians and other researchers. All will be seeking to put to
rest the still unanswered question that the U.S. Supreme Court declined to
force the state of Florida to determine: Who really won the popular vote in
the disputed presidential election in Florida? At the center of the
controversy are the ballots themselves.

         In order to answer that question for the American people, Congress
should step in and subpoena, and then "federalize" the six million Florida
presidential ballots (dimples, pimples and all).  Congress should also act
to save other related documentary evidence of that state's election such as
instructions and e-mail communications between the Florida secretary of
state's office and local election boards. The records should then be turned
over to the National Archives to ensure their preservation for posterity.

         Under normal circumstances, ballots cast during a presidential
election remain the property of individual states.  After a suitable amount
of time, ballots are quietly disposed of.  In Florida, state law charges
each of the 67 counties to preserve ballots for a minimum of 22 months,
after which they may be destroyed. Clearly, the historical record is at risk.

         The historical record must be saved. Several options need to be
weighed if these significant records are to be preserved:  Since the
ballots presently are the property of local governments, after 22 months
the Florida Department of State could request that the ballots be
transferred to the state archives for consolidated permanent retention.
Because state officials plan to take no action to consolidate the ballots
for at least 22 months, it is unclear what action (if any) professional
archivists would be permitted or would in fact take to preserve the
documentary record. After 22 months have passed, who knows what will happen
to these precious documents of an historic election, given the highly
charged political atmosphere?

        Congress or the Archivist of the United States could request the
state of Florida to transfer the ballots voluntarily to the National
Archives. This option is problematic because there is some question whether
state law permits officials to turn state records over to the federal
government without the approval of the governor, legislature or both. This
approval seems unlikely.

         Congress can and should subpoena and thereby federalize these
records. It has the power, authority and right to preserve the Florida
presidential election ballots and related documents. Such action is not
without precedent. As far back as the now well-known election of 1876, some
state records were secured by the federal government in order to clarify
the results of that contested election, in which Rutherford B. Hayes was
ultimately declared the winner over Samuel J. Tilden.

         One of the first actions the 107th Congress should take is to
create a special congressional investigatory panel to review the
documentary record relating to the hotly contested 2000 election.   The
panel should be roughly modeled after the U. S. Assassination Records
Review Board — the independent, bipartisan entity established by Congress
in 1992 that examined the controversy surrounding the assassination of
President John F. Kennedy. That body of independent scholars — none of
whom had a particular ax to grind — was able to put to rest lingering
questions relating to the murder of our 35th president.

         Some may question why researchers should be given access to the
ballots for independent assessment when their findings, perhaps a year down
the road, may cast a pall over the administration of a sitting president.
In fact, the question is moot because the Florida "sunshine" law in effect
now permits anybody to gain access to ballots. Already Judicial Watch (a
nonpartisan but conservative-leaning organization), several news
organizations, and disenchanted Gore supporters have filed papers in all of
Florida's 67 counties to do just that, and their review of the ballots has
already begun. While all of these entities have legitimate rights to review
the ballots, in many cases their research is likely to reflect a set
political agenda.

         It is in the national interest to preserve the integrity of the
documentary record for the nation's posterity. The American people want to
ensure that some day the entire historical record relating to the disputed
election in Florida will be available for anyone to study. Certainly, every
citizen deserves to learn the whole story of this, one of the most
controversial elections in American history. Preserve the historical record
and let the documents themselves speak to future generations.

Bruce Craig is director of the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History, a non-profit, independent, non-partisan professional organization, and is a writer for History News Service.