In its editorial "Safeguarding the Vote," The Orange County Register wrote that nothing was more critical in an election than an accurate accounting of the people's will as expressed at the ballot box. Too bad if "seeking the truth" upset some political interests, the paper opined. "Any investigation, whether by local authorities, the state or federal government, must have as its goal the uncovering of truth."
That was the Register's opinion in 1997. A few months before, Republican Bob Dornan had been locked in a tight race for the 46th Congressional District with Democratic challenger Loretta Sanchez. Early results from the November 1996 election showed Dornan with a narrow victory; Dornan cock-a-doodled and trash-talked Sanchez. But within days, the registrar announced that absentee votes had given Sanchez a narrow 943-vote victory.
A bitter, defeated Dornan immediately cried foul and advanced imaginary voter-fraud allegations in hopes of keeping the voters' choice out of office. The Register had no problem with the countless, expensive, multijurisdictional ballot probes that followed. For 14 months, the paper cheered as a Republican registrar of voters, a Republican district attorney, a Republican secretary of state, a Republican state attorney general and a Republican-led investigation committee of the U.S. Congress did their best to serve Dornan. But in the end, even motivated Republican officials could not substantiate Dornan's laughable tales, including the one about nuns in vans swerving through the darkened streets of Santa Ana while stuffing ballot boxes. Despite the numerous investigations, not one vote was ever changed or a single person indicted for what the notoriously loudmouthed GOP congressman had called "the greatest voter fraud in American history."
The Register thought Dornan's hunt for the red November—which falsely cast a shadow over thousands of Latino voters—was reasonable and productive. Sanchez certainly shouldn't take the oath of office under a cloud of suspicion surrounding the vote, the paper said at the time. In "A Clouded Victory" (Nov. 17, 1996), the Registermade its opinion perfectly clear: "The citizen's vote is his lever to guide and remedy government 'of the people.' If that vote is debased, democracy perishes." In a Dec. 15, 1996, editorial, the paper's editorial writers encouraged Dornan further, writing, "He is perfectly within his rights to challenge the election results."
Of course, Orange County's leading daily newspaper can't be counted on for editorial consistency. When the fruits of an election probe might benefit a Democrat—say, Al Gore—the Register shamelessly flip-flops. Now, it turns out, challenging an election is nothing more than taking the "low road."
"Frankly," the Reg wrote on Nov. 17 ("Gore's Low Road"), "we've been deeply disturbed by the intensity of the Gore team's multifaceted attempt to win the election at, apparently, any cost." Unlike the paper's pen pal Dornan—who brought in teams of lawyers, used every legal avenue available, and demanded and received repeated recounts—Gore's use of the courts has been, in the Reg's eyes, "junkyard-dog-style" politicking. They asked, "What kind of administration could be expected from a man who has taken what is increasingly looking like the low road to the White House?"
In "The Democrats Work the System" (Nov. 14), Cathy Taylor's editorial crew lectured Gore's team to "tone down its full-court press [and] show some respect for the Constitution and for the state laws of Florida and remind itself of the damage it's causing."
In "Election Counts and Rule of Law" (Nov. 15), the paper wrote that Gore's insistence on a review of potentially uncounted presidential ballots in Florida was "profoundly subversive to a free and civilized society."
With the Register's preferred candidate, George W. Bush, hanging on to a 300-vote lead, the paper called on the Democratic candidate—who has already received the most popular votes—to concede. "End the divisiveness," they wrote, "and find ways to come together for the good of the nation."
The Register self-righteously poses as Libertarian—the party of limited government. But an editorial trajectory like this one reveals that the paper is nothing more than a house organ for right-wing Republicans hell-bent on taking the White House. It's not so surprising that political expediency now trumps an accurate ballot count in Florida.
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