Meanwhile, Down the Ballot . . .

November 15, 2000

Americans are divided about the issues, too.

Many years ago William F. Buckley quipped that he would rather be governed by the
first 2,000 people in the Boston phone book than by the Harvard faculty. This insight
came to mind Sunday as I read Harvard law professor Laurence H. Tribe's op-ed in
the Sunday New York Times, in which he offered a solution to the disputed vote
count in Florida. Mr. Tribe, who is representing Al Gore's campaign in some of the
litigation now under way in the Sunshine State, proposes a "corrective election." It
would be limited to people who voted on Election Day and who signed sworn
affidavits that they would vote for "whichever candidate they had intended to vote
for on Election Day" (emphasis mine).


If that is not vague and potentially corrupting enough for you, Mr. Tribe goes on to
say that since some voters might swear one way and vote another, "counting rules"
should be adopted " to correct no more than the precise violation" that had "misled
some Gore voters into voting for Pat Buchanan." These rules would, Professor Tribe
says, award George W. Bush and Ralph Nader "the same number of votes each of
them won the first time around. New vote totals could become possible only for Mr.
Gore and Mr. Buchanan."


On that, I rest my case for the wisdom of Mr. Buckley's truth. It is hard to imagine a
more malicious proposal for undermining the democratic process or Americans' faith
in the electoral process. For when it is perceived that people's votes mean nothing,
that it's all up to result-oriented, postelection rules devised by lawyers at Harvard,
our two centuries of success with a constitutional republic will be finished.
Meanwhile, further down the ballot and far away from Florida, other important
political decisions were being made on Election Day.


The 50 state legislatures saw a slight shift to Republicans, deadlocking party control
at the state level much as it turned out in the presidential, Senate, and House races.
Before the elections, Democrats controlled 19 state legislatures to 17 for Republicans
and 13 were divided (Nebraska's unicameral legislature is nonpartisan). After the
election it is 17 for the GOP, 16 for the Democrats and 13 divided, with votes still
being counted in Washington state. Democrats picked up one governorship (West
Virginia's), so the large Republican majority barely changed.


State ballot initiatives also gave us a divided result. Conservative principles
triumphed when public financing of elections lost in Missouri and Oregon, the right to
assisted suicide in was defeated in Maine, and suburban growth limitations lost in
Arizona and Colorado. Arizona joined California in ending bilingual education. Tax
referendums abolished death levies Montana in South Dakota, cut income taxes in
Massachusetts and limited property taxes in Washington state.


In Oregon a measure limiting state legislative appropriations to 15% of personal
income lost, but one mandating the return of any annual revenue surpluses to the 
taxpayers won. Raising the cap on the deductibility of federal taxes on state tax
returns won; removing it entirely lost.


Voters in many states wrestled with the question of what to do about America's
dismal education system. They elected education commissioners, considered bond
issues, teacher pay for performance plans and vouchers.


Voucher proposals are the most furiously fought policy battles in politics today. Mr.
Gore pledged in the campaign "I will never support private school vouchers," so if he
wins there will likely be a federal effort to shut down programs like Florida's A+,
which awards vouchers to children in failing schools. Mr. Bush, on the other hand,
has a national plan much like the Florida one, to allow low-income kids in failed
schools to use federal funds to pay the tuition at a school of their choice.


In California and Michigan, voucher ballot initiatives went down in flames. The
California plan was a $4,000 vouchers-for-all-children plan, far too ambitious for an
electorate uneasy about making sweeping education policy changes at the polls. The
Michigan plan would have granted $3,300 scholarships to students in school districts
where less than two-thirds of the students graduate. The education establishment
and the ACLU (didn't they used to be for individual rights?) fought it and won.

 

That's unfortunate, since voucher plans seem to be having a positive impact on low income minority kids consigned to urban America's worst schools. A meticulously
designed study released last summer found that reading and math scores of African American students using vouchers in private schools in three cities--New York,
Washington and Dayton, Ohio--rose an average of six percentile points (nine in
Washington) compared with their public-school demographic counterparts.


Privately funded low-income student voucher programs are significantly improving
kids' educations. They are overwhelmingly popular too. In 1999, when the privately
funded Children's Scholarship Fund awarded 40,000 scholarships to low-income
children across the country, the fund received 1.25 million applications, even though
parents had to pay $1,000 a year in tuition. The applicants included 29% of the
eligible applicants in New York and 33% in Washington.


A sensible pay-for-performance initiative in Oregon that would have allowed public school teachers to be paid more if their children learned more was defeated by
resolute teacher's union opposition. Recall that at their convention this past summer,
NEA delegates, Leninists to the last, passed a policy resolution opposing
"performance pay . . . or any other system of compensation based upon an
evaluation of an education employee's performance."


Likewise a Washington state initiative to expand the other successful school reform
effort in America--charter schools--also failed. Charter schools, independently run
within the public-school system, are producing extraordinarily good results across
the country. Some 2,000 of them are now in operation; their students' test scores
are higher, their atmosphere better, parental confidence in them stronger than at
bureaucratically bound public schools. The Edison Project's 37,000 largely minority
students in 79 charter schools are showing test-score improvements of several 
percentage points. Better still, they (like the A+ voucher program in Florida) are
causing public schools to improve themselves.


So what did the election tell us? That while Americans are deeply divided on the
issues, the American system of representative democracy effectively decides who will
represent us, make policy choices for us, and provides guidance on what we wish
those policies to be. For 200 years it has been succeeding, and if we continue to
permit people with common sense--as opposed to experts at Harvard--to make the
decisions, the republic will prosper for 200 more.


Mr. du Pont, a former governor of Delaware, is policy chairman of the Dallas-based
National Center for Policy Analysis. His column appears Wednesdays.

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