Conspiracy theories on election abound

By Anne E. Kornblut, Globe Staff, 12/11/2000

USTIN, Texas - Robert Lederman spies a conspiracy around virtually every corner of American government, and nowhere more so than in the post-election drama playing out in Florida.

Lederman, 50, a Democratic activist, spotted signs of a sinister plot from the moment Florida Governor Jeb Bush flew home after election night. Since then, the rulings by various courts and elections officials have only confirmed his worst suspicion: the existence of a ''vast right-wing conspiracy,'' probably tied to the CIA, orchestrated to win the White House for George W. Bush.

Wasn't it obvious that Secretary of State Katherine Harris certified the vote under orders from Jeb Bush? Was it just coincidence that Republicans took ballots home in Seminole and Martin counties - and were never punished? Didn't the media cover the whole thing up?

''Of course the whole thing is a setup,'' Lederman said, scoffing at the notion Al Gore suffered legitimate legal setbacks.

Like a modern-day Kennedy assassination, the ongoing intrigue over the Florida ballots has drawn conspiracy theorists out of the woodwork, prompting wild tales of subversion and deceit by Republicans desperate to regain office. But the suspicions are not limited to Democratic activists who, like Lederman, view conspiracy hunting as a full-time job; even more tempered Democrats say they are skeptical about a string of events in Florida and in Washington that seem so heavily stacked.

While few Democratic officials have accused their opponents of plotting an actual ''conspiracy,'' many say they do not believe the various setbacks for Gore were all based purely on reasonable assessments of the law, separate and apart from the political views of the judges and elections officials who were in charge of each decision along the way. At the very least, they said, there are clear signs of partisanship and GOP networking, although Gore himself has steered clear of accusing the judicial branch of grounding its decisions in politics.

''There are some people who feel it's a conspiracy,'' said Phil Johnston, chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, who said he has been ''flooded'' with phone calls from Democratic supporters since Nov. 7. ''I don't think there's any evidence to support that, and I think the vice president has been careful to refrain from that kind of rhetoric, but I think among many activist Democrats there is a sense that this election in Florida was not on the level.''

Bruce Buchanan, a political science professor at the University of Texas, said there was at least a marginal ''cause for concern, because so many of the players at every level were partisans whose motives were at least suspect if not demonstrably partisan.''

''That said, though, I've watched pretty closely, and everybody who's taken action, with the possible exception of the Legislature, has had legal cover,'' Buchanan said. ''When you're caught up in a fight, there's a greater tendency to perceive malfeasance.''

Almost without exception, partisans have interpreted each turn of events through a political lens, casting favorable decisions as reasonable and unfavorable ones as the result of political bias. And rarely has a judge been given credit for ruling contrary to his political party; last Friday, when Judge Nikki Clark refused to a Democratic request to throw out absentee ballots in one Florida county, there was little mention that she did so despite being a liberal Democrat herself.

Like the Democrats, Republicans have smelled a rat at times as well, especially in the decisions by the Florida Supreme Court, which on two occasions ruled in favor of Gore against a tidal wave of protest from Bush supporters. In particular, the ruling last week to restart the manual ballot recount prompted accusations that the seven justices were acting on their partisan convictions rather than the letter of the law.

But Republican complaints of a Democratic ''conspiracy,'' while occasionally more vocal, have been limited, in part because developments since Nov. 7 have generally favored Bush. No one has implicated President Clinton in an undercover effort to win the White House for Gore, for example, or suggested that Florida's Democratic senator, Bob Graham, personally orchestrated the ballot recount.

And Republicans ridicule Democratic concerns, of both a secret plot and of partisanship, as sour grapes.

''I would say if this is a conspiracy, it's one of the most incompetent conspiracies in American political history,'' said John Yoo, a professor of law at the University of California at Berkeley, ''If you were really going to steal an election, why would you steal it by 540 votes?''

The decision by the US Supreme Court over the weekend to halt the manual recount and schedule a hearing for today was met with another round of outrage from Democrats, who saw the 5-4 split among the justices as a troubling sign of political bias. After its previous 9-0 decision, the Supreme Court had been viewed as the last outpost of nonpartisan reason in the election drama; how they rule after today's hearing could determine public opinion of the court for decades to come.

Although conspiracy theorists will certainly continue their quest regardless of the outcome, some political analysts feared a split decision by the Supreme Court after today could raise doubts among even the most trusting citizens about the judiciary's ability to act outside political realm. Professor Erwin Chemerinsky, who teaches law at the University of Southern California, said the Saturday order to stop recount alone hurt the image of the court, now ''tarnished in the eyes of many people. It's seen as another political player,'' Chemerinsky said.

''In some sense, the mask has fallen and you can see what's really going on. ... It's very demoralizing to me,'' said Mary Cheh, a law professor at George Washington University. ''The court doesn't have many resources, but what it does have is the good will ... of the people.''