The U.S. Supreme Court has already weighed in on the presidential election. Now it's time for the military courts to weigh in.
Why? A recent article in The New York Times about the counting of absentee ballots in Florida raises serious questions about the behavior of some American soldiers. Most of the article was about the actions of the Bush campaign. The six-month investigation turned up strong evidence that the Bush campaign and the Florida Republican Party systematically put pressure on local election boards to bend the rules and accept late or otherwise invalid absentee ballots. Half of all late overseas ballots in pro-Bush counties were accepted, while only 18% of ballots in strong Gore areas got the same consideration.
Obviously, Congressional investigators or federal prosecutors should look into whether Bush lawyers, and their counterparts in the Gore campaign, twisted or broke election laws.
But among the most striking passages in the Times piece were those showing how military personnel took advantage of their absentee status:
After Nov. 7, some hurriedly mailed their ballots, unaware or unconcerned that late voting is illegal. Aboard the George Washington, an aircraft carrier then in the Adriatic Sea, Michael J. Kohrt recalled fellow crew members gathering around television sets on the morning of November 8. "We saw Florida was deadlocked, and everyone on the ship said, 'Whoa, I have got to get my ballot in,'" he said. "A lot of guys voted late."
The Times investigation found a substantial number of people who, like Mr. Kohrt, knowingly cast their ballots after Election Day. Of the 91 voters interviewed whose ballots had either missing or late postmarks, 30 acknowledged marking ballots late."
The Times also suggests that some military personnel stationed in bases in the U.S. sent in absentee ballots after November 7. They note that many of the more than 300 ballots without postmarks were domestic. "Many were postmarked in military towns like Norfolk, Va., or San Diego. And dozens of these voters acknowledged that they were in fact inside the United States on election day."
A lot of what went on in Florida was legal hairsplitting, but you don't have to be an election law expert to know it's wrong to vote after the results have been announced.
Perhaps the most disheartening aspect of the legal maneuvering of the last election was to see how our leaders adopted a Johnny Cochran mindset. O.J. Simpson's notorious defender came to exemplify the adversarial system taken to its logical extreme: It's the advocate's job to do whatever is necessary to help the cause; it's up to the courts to adjudicate and stop inappropriate behavior.
The campaigns seemed to approach the election the same way. Any step, no matter how ruthless or legally questionable, was appropriate. It was up to the courts and the election boards to stop them.
This latest report shows individuals taking the same Johnny Cochran approach to their own personal behavior. Why not try to vote late and leave it up to the authorities to catch you? What's missing, of course, is a simple intervention of conscience, a recognition that what they're doing might be wrong regardless of whether they'll be caught.
There was a great deal of talk during the recount about the unfairness of disenfranchising the men in uniform who risk their lives. Certainly those who serve should not be denied their lawfully cast ballots. They also shouldn't be excused when they break the law.