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Harris was less than impartial during the presidential campaign. Related Gully Coverage

Florida Absentee Ballots: Birds in the Bush?
Keeping it clean.

U.S. Election 2000
Posturers, panderers, pretenders, and special interests.

The Complete Elian
More Florida Follies.

Katherine Harris

Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris

Kingmaker: Will Heiress Harris Pick the Next U.S. President?

by Ana Simo

NOVEMBER 15, 2000. A flamboyant cattle and citrus heiress from Sarasota could help install Republican George W. Bush as 43rd President of the United States. Katherine Harris, 43, a Bush supporter and Florida's Secretary of State, today asked the state Supreme Court to order a halt to manual ballot recounts in three large, heavily Democratic counties until the courts decide if such a count is proper.

Harris' increasingly tough stance could end Al Gore's hopes to overcome George W. Bush's 300-vote advantage in Florida, the deciding state in the presidential sweepstakes.

Yesterday, Harris gave the counties until 2 p.m. today to prove that those recounts were justified. Unless the state Supreme Court decides otherwise, even if manual recounts were to restart, Harris could still refuse to certify their results—as long as her refusal is not "arbitrary," a lower court told her yesterday. If so, a definition of what constitutes arbitrariness would undoubtedly also wind up in court.

Partisan Fray
The Bush and Gore camps quickly followed Harris into state Supreme Court with their own petitions. Bush joined the Harris lawsuit, claiming that the initial vote tally and the mandatory machine recount had clearly won him the state. Gore asked the court to rule if hand recounts were appropriate, and to set a "reasonable" deadline for their completion.

While Harris has maintained that she is handling the Florida results impartially, guided only by what state laws dictate, Democrats think otherwise. The Gore camp has been reviling her for days as a Bush crony. Gore campaign manager Bill Daley accused her yesterday of doing all she could to try to block or slow the recount. Her latest actions, Democrats now say, are a confirmation of their worst fears. Harris supporters, on the other hand, point out that all seven Florida state Supreme Court judges have been appointed by Democratic governors.

Bush Sr., Gen. SchwarzkopfHarris was less than impartial during the presidential campaign. She was the co-chair of George W. Bush's Florida campaign and campaigned for him in New Hampshire. A few weeks ago, she was criticized by Common Cause, the non-partisan watchdog group, for hiring retired General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, who was actively campaigning for Bush in Florida, to tape a taxpayer-funded television commercial for her office, urging people to vote.

She was also a delegate to the Republican convention. Although they do not appear to be close friends, she has been a loyal member of Florida Governor Jeb Bush's cabinet. The energetic, ambitious Harris has been variously reported as considering a U.S. Senate run and eyeing an ambassadorship or a federal arts post if the older Bush brother wins.

Deep Pockets
Harris won election to her current job in 1998 after a bruising primary in which she spent more than $1 million out of her own, deep, pocket—it was one of the most expensive races in Florida history.

During her earlier four years as state senator, she had worked to promote the economy and the arts, her twin passions. She also sponsored a bill requiring parental notification for women under 18 to get an abortion. The bill was vetoed by then Governor Lawton Chiles, a Democrat. Before entering politics, she had worked for IBM and in real estate.

As secretary of state, Harris has shown—until now—little interest in the electoral process and other traditional functions of her job. Instead, she has spent most of her time, and funds, trying to boost the state's cultural and trade ties abroad. She has organized cultural and trade missions to half a dozen Latin American countries and set up a Florida World Pavilion at the recent Sydney Olympics. Although her efforts have won her praise, even from some Democrats, her travel expenses ($100,000, so far) have raised eyebrows.

Political Scandal
Harris' prominent family connections helped launch her political career and have kept it on the fast track ever since. A fourth-generation Floridian, she is the granddaughter of citrus and cattle baron Ben Hill Griffin, who served in the state House and Senate in the 1950's and whose name graces the University of Florida football stadium. Her net worth is reportedly $6.5 million.

She graduated from Agnes Scott College, in Georgia, and then spent some time studying art in Switzerland and other points in Europe. She earned a master's degree in international trade from Harvard in 1996, while already in the state Senate.

Harris' one brush with political scandal so far has been an illegal campaign contribution for more than $20,000 that she took from Riscorp, a Florida insurance company during her 1994 senate run. She later supported legislation that would have benefited the company. In 1997, the company's founder was jailed for this and 22 other illegal campaign contributions, totaling almost $400,000. Harris, who claims to this day she knew nothing, was never indicted and later returned the money.

Wanted: Impartial Observers
Harris' partisanship is not the exception, but the rule. Like her, Secretaries of State in most states are either Democrats or Republicans. They owe their position, or, at least their future advancement, to their ability to deliver for that party. While this does not automatically mean that they will act in a partisan manner, it does create a fertile ground for abuses, especially when the stakes are as high as in Florida.

The United Nations and Jimmy Carter repeatedly tell fractious Third World people that elections should never be certified by anyone having the slightest tinge of partisanship. Which is why the U.N., and Jimmy Carter are called into international election shindigs. They certify. Impartially. Transparently. Beyond a shadow of a doubt. Maybe the time has come for neutral election certifying panels in all of our own 50 states.

Related links:

For Common Cause.

To find out how she whiles away her hours when she's not deciding who will be the next U.S. President, go to Katherine Harris' official web site.

For the Likelihood of Altering the Outcome of the Florida 2000 Presidential Election by Recounting. From mathematician David Rusin, Northern Illinois University.

For "Voting Irregularities in Palm Beach, Florida," a statistical analysis of the mistaken Buchanan vote by Greg D. Adams, of Carnegie Mellon University.

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