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Comments by Bruce Craig
Nat'l Coordinating Comm. for the Promotion of History

Preserving History
What about the Florida Ballots?

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: bwilkins@mail.dos.state.fl.us


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.
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