Let the recount begin

Boston Globe editorial, 12/9/2000

OUNT THE VOTES. That should have been the guiding principle in Florida since Nov. 8, but too often it was lost as legal teams for George W. Bush and Al Gore pressed contradictory suits for partisan advantage.

Yesterday, three Florida courts put the focus back where it belongs: on the side of the state's voters.

In courageously ordering manual recounts of the undervote statewide, the Florida Supreme Court said it had had enough of the feverish legal maneuvering by lawyers for Bush to leave out thousands of ballots that had never been counted manually.

Earlier, circuit judges in two counties had ruled that Gore supporters were also wrong in trying to disqualify thousands of absentee ballots.

The 4-3 Supreme Court decision will by no means guarantee victory for Gore. The major reason that the recount should go forward is that it is the best way to give legitimacy to whoever does win. ''Only by examining the contested ballots,'' said the court, ''can a meaningful and final determination in this election contest be made.''

The will of any electorate is expressed through individual votes, and several of the Florida Supreme Court justices were clearly horrified that some 383 net votes for Gore that had already been counted in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties had been excluded from the state totals, along with thousands of ballots kicked out in the machine counts.

In the Seminole and Martin County cases, circuit judges ruled that thousands of absentee ballots should not be disqualified, despite irregularities by Republican Party operatives in the application process. Absent proof that Democrats had been denied the same access as Republicans, the courts were justified in keeping those votes in the state totals.

Still, the ''irregularities'' are extremely troubling. The state Legislature must tighten election procedures, or these court decisions will be seen as a declaration of open season for all kinds of campaign shenanigans.

In the recount, it will be difficult at times to determine ''the clear intent of the voter,'' as the court asked. But bipartisan teams can do the job fairly, and many of the ballots will be clear. Throughout the country, including in Texas, hand counts are relied on as the surest arbiter of voter intent.

Bush, who describes himself as a uniter not a divider, gave the lie to that label last night by attempting to block the recount before it could even begin. Bush's effort to run the clock out is conduct unbecoming a president. Meanwhile, his brother Jeb, governor of Florida, owes first loyalty in this case to his constituents, the voters. And the state Legislature, busy choosing electors, should take a deep breath and honor the recount. Belatedly - but not too late - it is time to count the votes.