AFTER CLAIMING to be a ''uniter, not a divider,'' George W. Bush has opened a fissure that stretches back 100 years. Bush should not be handed the presidency until we know who fell - or was shoved - into the chasm and whether they can be lifted out. Many members of the mainstream, i.e., the white press, including Democratic politicians and Gore-leaning pundits, have reacted to our nearly deadlocked election by asking Al Gore not to push too hard in the courts to create a ''constitutional crisis'' or even to concede to Bush for the ''good of the country.''
It goes to show that for some comfortable white men, it does not matter which white guy is president. For the rest of us, there is a crisis here and now. The news is not whether Gore should be as statesmanlike as Richard Nixon in his close loss to John F. Kennedy. The real story is how Bush is poisoning democracy as surely as Nixon, destroying both our trust in the electoral process and race relations.
In the last few days, Bush has attempted to block a hand recount of ballots in Florida. He has hidden behind the exceptionally arbitrary decision by the Republican secretary of state of Florida to set a deadline of yesterday for certifying the state's presidential vote, a deadline that huge Palm Beach County could not possibly have met. In that mostly Democratic county, 19,000 votes were thrown out, with many voters leaving the booth saying they did not know if they had voted for Gore or Patrick Buchanan.
By trying to evade a full recount in Palm Beach, the Texas governor has invited the most dubious of comparisons. He wants to win the presidency by doing, in a modern context, what Southern segregationists did for decades.
Bush wants to win on a literacy test.
In the 1850s, Connecticut and Massachusetts imposed literacy tests on disfavored Irish immigrants. The Deep South built on those tests in the 1890s and early 1900s to disenfranchise African-Americans who had gained significant political power after Reconstruction.
African-Americans who went to register to vote were suddenly asked to recite, word for word, state constitutions or the US Constitution. While states used grandfather clauses to keep two-thirds of white voters on the rolls, 90 percent of African-Americans voters were knocked out of the booth by 1912.
Once knocked out, black folks were kept out in the South until the civil rights movement. During the Virginia constitutional convention that led to the elimination of black voters in 1902, one delegate declared that the ''great underlying principle'' was ''the elimination of the Negro from the politics of this state.''
In the 1940s, a local Democratic Party official said in South Carolina, ''If a coon wants to vote in the primary, we make him recite the Constitution backward, as well as forward, make him close his eyes and dot his t's and cross his i's.'' Registrars in Mississippi asked black people seeking to register, ''How many bubbles are in a bar of soap?''
Today, we may have ended literacy tests, but Bush is punishing 19,000 voters for their inability to read a confusing ballot. This is in the face of many possible election irregularities for black voters in Florida, ranging from discriminatory requests for IDs, intimidating police roadblocks, lack of Creole intepreters, and polls shutting down black precincts despite long lines. Jewish precincts had a suspiciously high number of double-punched ballots, and another lost its computerized votes altogether when a poll worker accidently erased them.
''The thing that hurts so bad is, we got our right to vote and it still doesn't count!'' said the Rev. Griffin Davis of Riviera Beach. ''There's no answer for throwing out 19,000 votes in Palm Beach County. It's a disgrace before God.''
It is also a disgrace before history. Bush supporters say there is no problem because a Democrat approved the Palm Beach ballot. But when 19,000 people make the same mistake, it should be the customer, not the candidate, who is right.
This nation once punished black people who could not count the bubbles in a bar of soap. Now, 19,000 voters face disenfranchisement because they could not tell which spot to punch on a confusing ballot. That test of a voter's literacy is unfair. A candidate who ignores such unfairness a century after such travesties divided this nation and who would twist literacy to his own ends will surely not be a fair president.
If Bush has an ounce of the compassion he says he does, he will recite the Voting Rights Act backward as well as forward and let the votes be counted until all the t's are dotted and the i's crossed. If he does not, he will be remembered as the president who won on the underlying principle of eliminating thousands of Americans from the voting booth.
© Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company