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Uncharted Political Waters

Two odd campaigns in this year's elections point up a need to change state laws in order to maintain the integrity of elected offices and the public trust.

In one, Connecticut voters will see double when they go inside the voting booth and notice the name of Joseph Lieberman listed as candidate for both US senator and vice president. While that's allowed under the state Constitution, it's unfair to confuse voters and to put the state through the after-election process of appointing a new senator if he and Al Gore win the White House. Rather than cover his bases, Mr. Lieberman should have made a choice, just as voters must make a choice.

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Then there's the extraordinary case in Missouri of incumbent US Sen. John Ashcroft (R) running against a ballot opponent who's deceased. And what's more, if the deceased wins, it might help the Democrats win back a majority in the Senate.

The official opponent is former Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan, who was killed in a plane accident last month. His death came too close to the election for the Democrats to take his name off the ballot and field another candidate.

Now the current governor, Democrat Roger Wilson, promises to appoint Mr. Carnahan's widow, Jean, to accept a two-year appointment, should her late husband win.

That's allowed under Missouri law and the US Constitution. Still, the state GOP might sue if Mr. Ashcroft loses. They argue the only legal way to elect Mrs. Carnahan is for voters to write in her name - unlikely since her husband's name is there.

It's right in these cases to follow the legal process, but the process itself needs some close attention.

Should the late Mr. Carnahan win, it's likely Senator Ashcroft would file a challenge. The Constitution gives the Senate and the House final decision as to who has been elected to their respective bodies, so whenever there's a contested election, the ultimate decision is up to them. In the divided Senate, such a vote may come down to a tie as well - with Mr. Gore as the deciding vote. That could make for some major consequences out of what are often (thankfully) rarities in the country's election history.

But Ashcroft has decided to continue his campaign, and Mrs. Carnahan decided admirably to "run." Still, the notion of widow's "mandate" in today's world seems outmoded, especially when so many women are serving on their own merits, duly elected.

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Governor Wilson leaves the appearance that he may be using the tragedy to generate sympathy votes and taking advantage of the rules in order to help his party win the Senate. Events have denied Missouri voters a choice between the two best-qualified candidates. A wiser move would be for the governor to appoint a more neutral caretaker if the deceased were to win and ask the legislature to seek a special election later this year. But now, the nation may have to watch the Senate go through a wringer to decide if this Missouri election was fair.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society