We have mostly been viewing the fight in Florida in terms of politics, the law and the Constitution.

Let's pretend for a moment that the candidates, in deciding their next steps, should also consider one other question: What's the right thing to do?

Most finger wagging so far has been directed at Al Gore for endangering the orderly process by threatening lawsuits. But on this one issue at least, we don't yet know if Al Gore has acted unethically. If, after the recount is done and absentee ballots are counted, Bush is still ahead, it could be argued that Gore has an obligation, for the sake of the democratic process, to drop his lawsuits. But until the rest of the process is finished, it cannot be argued that he's dragging out the process. We'll see.

But on another ethical test, we can make a judgment now: George W. Bush's campaign has already acted immorally.

All of the absentee ballots have not yet arrived. Only a few hundred votes separate the two candidates, and several thousand ballots may be outstanding. This doesn't relate to recounts, double-recounts, hand counts, butterfly ballots, or confused seniors.

It's alarmingly simple: All of the votes in Florida have not been counted even once.

And yet Bush's spokeswoman, Karen Hughes, said Friday, "The vote count on Tuesday night showed Governor Bush won Florida's election, and a recount has now confirmed his victory."

James A. Baker III, Bush's representative in Florida, added, "The vote here in Florida was very close, but when it was counted Governor Bush was the winner."

It's hard to think of an ethical offense in the political world worse than claiming a victory in a presidential election before all the votes are counted (unless the opponent has conceded). Bush has exacerbated the problem by showily assembling his transition team, though he later seemed to alleviate some of the damage by at least acknowledging that there are still votes to be counted and explaining that "should the verdict that has been announced be confirmed, we'll be ready to assume office and be prepared to lead."

In announcing victory, Bush is hoping to create a sense of inevitability. The logic seems to be that if we pretend the election is over we can create a reality that could not then be easily altered. And anyone who tries to can be accused of creating a potential constitutional crisis.

It's also cynical in another way. He's laying the groundwork so that, if the vote shifts Gore's way, his supporters will feel that they've been robbed. He is distributing a poison that will linger in the political system long after the results are decided.

The Democratic side has acted immorally too. Gore advises have declared victory at various points as well. More important, Suggestions by Jesse Jackson and Kweise Mfume that there was intentional fraud or racism--without offering any hard evidence--are grotesque. It is especially horrifying to devalue something so profoundly important as racism. And there could be no better case of "boy crying wolf." What will happen next time they make such accusations?

Why doesn't Gore ask them to stop making those statements?
Their demand for a hand count in four Florida counties is ethically dubious as well. The rationale for a hand count in closely contested counties relates to the vagaries of paper ballots. When voters punch their ballots, sometimes the punched bit of paper doesn't fall out completely. This paper fragments can confuse the machines that count the votes, and some ballots just don't get tallied as a result.

In this contest, hand-counting ballots that might have been missed makes some sense. But there is no ethical justification for counting only those four counties. Since the entire state used this system, the hand count should be either the entire state or not at all--not only in Democratic counties.

There seems to be an assumption operating that, with the stakes so high, politicians should be expected to take these sorts of liberties. Politics is politics. But is it too much to expect that with the stakes so high, they might tap into some deeper values? Our ultimate view of these men, and of the democratic system, will be shaped not by the results but by whether they do the right thing.

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