by Bruce Craig
Coordinating Comm. for the Promotion of History
What about the Florida
The results of the Florida
vote undoubtedly will provide future historians, political scientists,
and journalists decades of fodder for historical research, analysis, and
political commentary. We can expect, in years to come, that hundreds of
articles and books will flow from the pens of researchers, many of whom
will examine the still unanswered question that the U.S. Supreme Court
declined to force the state of Florida to determine: Who really won the
popular vote in the disputed presidential election in Florida? At the center
of the controversy are the ballots themselves.
Now that George W. Bush is
slotted to become the 43rd President of the United States, the NCC has
received a number of inquiries asking what the historical/archival community
is doing to see to it that the Florida ballots are preserved. To this end,
the executive directors of several historical organizations have already
sent letters to the Florida Secretary of State's office requesting the
state to take immediate action, for posterity sake, to consolidate and
preserve in the state archives the ballots from all 67 counties.
In Florida, state law charges
each of the 67 counties to preserve election ballots for a minimum of 22
months after which they may be destroyed. During this 22-month window,
Florida's "sunshine" laws enable anyone to view the documents. Already,
Judicial Watch (a nonpartisan but conservative leaning organization) and
several news organizations have filed papers in all of the states' counties
to do just that. Though perhaps not officially sanctioned, supporters of
Vice-President Gore are also expected to raise the necessary funds to conduct
their own ballot recounts.
Some have suggested, that
in order to definitively answer what will be a central question for future
historians and political scientists writing about the 2000 election, the
federal government - specifically Congress - should step in and subpoena,
if not "federalize," the Florida ballots and other related documentary
evidence of that state's election, and then turn them over to the National
Archives, thereby preserving them for posterity. House Speaker J. Dennis
Hastert (R-ILL) has taken a careful step in this direction by proposing
to create a Select Committee on Elections to examine the 2000 race. The
Speaker's proposal, however, does not seek to protect the integrity of
the ballots themselves. It falls short of perhaps an even better idea:
the creation of an investigatory body roughly modeled after the U. S. Assassination
Records Review Board - the independent, bipartisan review board that investigated
the controversy surrounding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Advocates of a review board
propose that such an independent panel could examine ways to prevent voter
fraud, scrutinize ballot procedures, and make recommendations for new federal
law to make voting procedures more uniform across the fifty states. But
perhaps the most important result would be that the documentary trail would
be preserved thus allowing future historians to study the disputed election.
After considerable research,
the NCC has learned that there are at least three possible options to weigh
if these nationally significant records are to be preserved: Since the
ballots presently are the property of local governments, the Florida Department
of State could request the ballots be voluntarily transferred to the state
archives as quickly as possible for consolidated permanent retention. But
according to officials at the Florida Division of Library and Information
Service (a division under the direction of the Florida Secretary of State),
the archives plans to take no action to consolidate the ballots for at
least 22 months, and after that, given the highly charged political atmosphere,
it is unclear what action (if any) professional archivists would be permitted
to take to preserve the documentary record.
Second, Congress, or the
Archivist of the United States, could request that the state of Florida
voluntarily transfer the ballots to the National Archives. The official
views of the National Archives on this option have not been obtained, but
irrespective, this scenario is problematic as even if state officials wanted
to turn the records over to a federal repository, Florida state law probably
does not permit officials to voluntarily turn the records over to the federal
government without the approval of the governor, legislature, or both.
This seems highly unlikely. In the meantime, these nationally significant
records are at risk.
Third, Congress could subpoena
and ultimately "federalize" the records. Such an action is not without
precedent. State records have been secured by Congress on several occasions
including Congress' 1876-1879 efforts to clarify election results of the
1876 contested election where Rutherford B. Hayes was ultimately declared
the winner. If, however, Congress was to subpoena the records, the materials
they collect could remain closed for a long time because of Congress' records
closure rules (30 years for House records; 20 years for the Senate and
up to 50 years for certain investigatory records that impact personal privacy)
unless Congress made special provisions to open the records earlier. Because
most recent polls show that 53% of the American people now question the
legitimacy of the Florida tally, some argue that Congress should act if
for no other reason than to assure the public that someday what really
happened in Florida will become part of the public record.
What needs to be preserved?
Some argue, that initially at least, nothing short of the complete historical
record - all 6 million presidential ballots cast in Florida (including
absentee, military, and all questionable ballots cast statewide) - should
be preserved. In addition to the ballots, it has been suggested that other
documents that contribute to the story of this election should be preserved.
Such items as instructions and communiques, E-mail communications and other
electronic records between the Florida Secretary of State's office, the
Division of Elections, and officials of municipal governments and local
election boards that were responsible for tabulating election returns should
all be immediately preserved and not lost to history.
Certainly, the long-term
goal of the historical and archival community is to preserve the integrity
of the documentary evidence for the nation's posterity. It is clearly in
our interest to take whatever actions are appropriate to see that someday
the entire documentary record relating to the disputed election in Florida
will be available for scholarly study.
Readers and NCC member organizations
are urged to let their views on the necessity to preserve election records
be known by sending letters and e-mail communications to: Katherine Harris,
Secretary of State, Florida Department of State, PL-02, The Capitol, Tallahassee,
FL 32399 and to Barratt Wilkins, Director, Division of Library and Information
Services, R.A. Gray Building, 500 South Bronough Street, Tallahassee, FL
32399. e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Since 1982, the National
Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History (NCC) has served
as a national advocacy office for historical and archival professions.
A consortium of 53 organizations, the NCC represents historical and archival
professions on issues involving federal funding and policy issues that
have an impact on historical research and teaching, access to government
information, employment of historians, public policy issues relating to
history, historic preservation, and the dissemination of historical information.
The NCC operates from an office in the American Historical Association
headquarters building on Capitol Hill in Washington.