Sunday, November 18, 2012
How Florida helps us think about what's right
Earlier this month, we had a presidential election in the U.S. Before midnight, the Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, had conceded to the Democratic candidate, Barack Obama. Because the U.S. uses the Electoral College to decide upon a victor rather than the raw vote tally, it was clear to each candidate that there was no way for Romney to have won, since Obama had surpassed the 270 of 538 electoral votes needed to be elected president.
By the end of Election Day, the electoral votes stood at 303 for Obama and 206 for Romney. And that's where they stood on Wednesday. And Thursday. And Friday. Because Florida was having some challenges in completing the count of its votes, it remained unclear which candidate would take its 29 electoral votes.
Ultimately, on Saturday, all the votes were in and Obama won Florida by 0.9 percent. In Florida, an automatic recount would have been triggered if the vote was closer than 0.5 percent. In such a case, Romney's campaign could have waived its legal right to a recount.
While Romney had already conceded the overall election, if a recount in Florida had been triggered, he would have had no legal obligation to waive his right to a recount. If it turned out in the recount that Florida actually went for Romney, the electoral votes would be a bit closer, at 303 to 235, than if the vote went for Obama. Then the election would end up 332 to 206. Either way, Romney loses -- but in one scenario he would lose by a lesser margin.
So, if Romney had a choice of a recount or waiving his right to a recount, what would have been the right thing to do? Just because we have the legal right to do something, is it always right to avail ourselves of that right?
I've written in this column before about the fact that there are ethical theories that are rules-based and then there are the ones that are utilitarian that argue for making choices based on the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Given the values of fiscal responsibility put forth by each candidate during the election, opting for the greater good in such a recount scenario is the way to go. Some estimates placed the cost of a voter recount in the state at more than $1 million. Of course, some estimates place the cost of the 2012 presidential campaign at roughly $2.6 billion, so just how fiscally responsible the candidates have been can be questioned.
The right thing would have been for Romney -- or Obama for that matter if by some happenstance he found himself falling short but within one-half percent range once all the votes were counted-- to write to Florida's election commission and waive the automatic recount. Not only would it reflect a concern over the cost of such a recount, it would also send a strong message about the character and the grace of either candidate.
There would be little to gain by scoring more points, when the bigger outcome is already clear. In Obama's case, there would have been no value in trying to run up the score simply because he could. And in Romney's, nothing would have been gained by cutting a lead that still results in a loss.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.
Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin
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(c) 2012 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.