Sunday, November 26, 2000

Close calls

Court fight over votes not new

        If you are waiting for your invitation to the George W. Bush inauguration, you may well have smoke coming out of your ears when you think about Al Gore going to court to challenge the Florida results.

        You needn't.

        Even after weeks of dueling press conferences, Floridian Carnacs divining the meaning of bumps on cardboard, and reports of poll workers gulping down chads (despite their lack of nutritional value), there is nothing that has happened yet that is not par for the course anytime there is a close election — anywhere in the U.S. of A.

        Some elections have been hashed out in court since elections were invented; always have been and always will be.

        Ohio law allows candidates to go to court to contest elections. So, too, does Florida law. So, too, do the laws of most states.

Ask Mirlisena
        If Al Gore wants some pointers on how not to challenge an election in court, he might want to talk to a former Cincinnatian who is now a retiree and a qualified elector in the Sunshine State of Florida — John Mirlisena.

        Seventeen years ago, Mr. Mirlisena was an appointed Republican Cincinnati city councilman, running in the 1983 election and hoping to hang on to the seat.

        But when the unofficial returns came in on election night, Mr. Mirlisena was edged out of the ninth and final council seat by a scant 0.2 percent by Democrat Sally Fellerhoff.

        He was still behind by the slimmest of margins when the official count was done a few days later, so Mr. Mirlisena was entitled to a recount.

        The punch card ballots were run through the counting machines once again, and Mr. Mirlisena was allowed to choose 13 city precincts that would be counted by hand.

Still behind
        Now, James Baker was otherwise occupied in those days, so he wasn't available to boo-hoo in public about bipeds getting their greasy opposable thumbprints all over punch card ballots. The 13 precincts were counted by hand; Mr. Mirlisena picked up a handful of votes but was still behind.

        So, he marched off to Hamilton County Common Pleas Court to contest the election of Mrs. Fellerhoff.

        His argument was that there were hundreds of Cincinnati residents — particularly in Over-the-Rhine, where he was popular — who were newly registered voters but who were disenfranchised on Election Day when they were turned away at the polls because their names were not in the precinct signature books.

        Testimony was taken; briefs were filed: but, in the end, Judge Thomas Crush ruled in favor of Mrs. Fellerhoff. Mr. Mirlisena, the judge said, failed to show that the mix-ups at the polling places would have produced enough votes to make the difference between Mr. Mirlisena winning and losing.

        The judge did take 13 votes away from Mrs. Fellerhoff, but she was still the winner.

Right to challenge
        In fact, Mrs. Fellerhoff had already been in office for nearly a month when the ruling was issued, because the first thing the court did was deny a request for an injunction barring her from being sworn in.

        Mr. Mirlisena went to court to challenge the elections, as was his right, and he lost.

        Two years later, he ran for council again and won.

        Feel free to write your own moral to this story.

       Howard Wilkinson covers politics. He can be reached at 768-8388 or at


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