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In elections, democracy must trump technicality

How about this idea:

If the winning side in a political race turns out to have broken any election laws, then the results of the election should be thrown out.

Sound good?

Wait. Maybe not.

After all, there are a lot of campaign laws. You have to fill out all these forms, list every contributor, cross every "t," meet lots of deadlines. It is easy to make mistakes, easy to run afoul.

So if finding a violation after the fact wipes out the election, then every sore loser could tie up our democracy in court, trying to find even the smallest technicality.

We might say, "Okey doke, then let's throw out the election only for really big campaign violations."

But even then, anybody could file a lawsuit making that kind of claim, and casting doubt over the vote.

No. The ballot box needs to have some finality to it. The only time we should be talking about throwing out election results in court is when the election itself, the mechanics of casting and counting the ballots, is suspect.

So what should we do about election-law violations committed during the campaign? Fine 'em, if they deserve a fine. Indict 'em, if they did a crime. Jail 'em, if they deserve the time.

Just don't make all election results subject to the subsequent approval of the judicial branch.

This brings us to the matter of Amendment 4 to our state Constitution, which was approved by Florida voters last November by a slim margin. That was the amendment opening the door for slot machines in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

Various groups filed a lawsuit against Amendment 4, alleging widespread irregularities in the petition drive that placed it on the ballot.

Having failed to block the election, the opponents then sought to have a judge throw out the election.

Just the other day a circuit judge in Tallahassee, Nikki Ann Clark, shot down this argument. Her seven-page order of dismissal is a model of restraint.

Some of Clark's major points:

(1) The people are the final judge. The people declared that Amendment 4 belongs in our Constitution. That decision "cures" any technical or procedural shortcomings that happened along the way.

(2) It is entirely the job of the executive branch, under our Constitution, to decide whether petition signatures are valid. The courts have no power to usurp that job.

(3) Nothing in this case involved claims of irregularities with the election itself, only with the compliance with election laws during the petition process.

"To invalidate this amendment after the fact . . . would thwart the will of the people who voted for it and would improperly inject this court into the political process," Clark concluded.

Clark's ruling is going to be appealed _ and the outcome is anybody's guess. In fact, in a 2000 case the Florida Supreme Court did exactly what Nikki Clark just refused to do.

In that case, Armstrong vs. Harris, the court reached back in time and threw out part of the Florida Constitution dealing with the death penalty that had already been approved by the voters, on the pretext that the voters must have been "confused."

This new case will give Clark's higher-ups on the 1st District Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court the chance either to recede from that earlier, dangerous grab of power _ or else open the door to a brave new world in which every election result is at the mercy of the judicial branch. How long would faith in our democracy survive?

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Here's a followup: Brian Blair, one of two new members of the Hillsborough County Commission, called in response to my Sunday column that criticized the commission for rejecting a $100 limit on gifts, so some of the members can keep their skybox seats at Tampa Bay Buccaneers games.

Although Blair didn't support the gift ban, he asked me to say that the only football tickets he's taken so far as a commissioner have been for the Outback Bowl and that he will not be taking any Bucs skybox tickets. Glad to hear it.