On the one hand, the calls for "closure," "finality" and national unity. On the other, Justice John Paul Stevens' bitter summation: "in the interests of finality, however, the majority (of the U.S. Supreme Court) effectively orders the disenfranchisement of an unknown number of voters whose ballots reveal their intent, and are therefore legal votes under (Florida) state law, but were for some reason rejected by the ballot-counting machines ... Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year's presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the nation's confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the law."

Back in the 1980s, we radicals used to write about "demonstration elections," conducted in Central American countries such as El Salvador at the instigation of the U.S. government and micromanaged by the CIA. After the money was appropriately spread around, the opposition's more tenacious and principled leaders were either butchered by death squads or driven underground, and the unruly poor thoroughly intimidated, the election ritual would take place amid complacent orations about the democratic way from North American commentators.

We've just had a peaceful and non-lethal version of these "demonstration elections" in the state of Florida, and no calls for closure will erase that national disgrace, least of all in the minds of those who were denied their democratic rights. Don't forget, beyond those who made it to the polls in Florida, there were those denied even the dubious benefits of that access.

Beyond the obsession about defiant punch card machines, obstacle course ballots, and pregnant or hanging chads, there are more serious issues that, in the miles of print written about the election in Florida, have received barely a mention: the systematic intimidation of poor people, blacks, Hispanics, immigrants and the disabled.

Try this story detailed by Ron Davis of Miami-Dade County. "Our family always votes together. This year, it was my turn to drive. After work, my wife Lisa and I borrowed a van from a friend and picked up my brother, my parents and my uncle and aunt. About a block away from the polling place, we were pulled over by a county sheriff. He looked in the van and asked me if I had a chauffeur's license. I said, this is my family, and we're going to vote. He said, 'You can't take all those people to the polling place without a license. Go home, and I won't write you a ticket.' I was tired of arguing. We went home, and all tried to vote later. But it was too late."

Or how about this, from Dave Crawford of Broward County: "I showed up at the polling place with my 5-year-old daughter. I was stopped at the door by an election official. He asked me my name. I told him. He said, 'Son, we've got a problem. You're not allowed to vote.' I asked him what the hell he was talking about. He said, 'Son, says here you're a convict. Convicts can't vote.' He had this list in his hand. And I told him that I'd never even been arrested in my life. I handed him my voter ID card. He just shook his head, smiled and pointed at a list. He never showed me my name. My daughter began to cry, and I left in disgust."

On Nov. 7, across Florida, blacks and Hispanics turned out to vote in record numbers. But tens of thousands of black voters were turned away from the polls by hostile election workers who demanded voter ID cards, even though those weren't required from white voters. Police set up roadblocks in black precincts around Tallahassee. Polls in black precincts closed early, often with dozens of voters waiting in line. Other polls were moved from their original locations without notice. Dozen of black college students who had registered this summer weren't permitted to vote.

In Duval County, a Republican stronghold, about 25,000 votes were tossed out by the canvassing board. More than 17,000 of those came from black precincts. To top it off, according to numerous accounts, election workers regularly demeaned as being "dumb and retarded" those voters who asked for help. Throughout Florida, more than 187,000 votes were dismissed, more than half of them from black precincts.

There should be no closure on these outrages, even though it is hard to imagine George W. Bush's Justice Department exerting itself in this regard. Nor should there be closure on what Justice Stevens stigmatized as the refusal, endorsed by the 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court majority, to recognize the clear voting intentions of those who did managed to gain access to Florida's dubious voting machines.

The saga of shenanigans in Florida has been a bracing civic education, not least because we have learned to appreciate yet again that judges' politics weigh far more strongly upon their opinion-forming faculties than a thousand precedents in American constitutional law. A strict constructionist on states' rights like Justice Scalia can become a federalist overnight, when the chips are down.

It is true that little in the way of substantive issues separated Bush from Gore. That is surely why the Florida imbroglio has been so mostly untroubling. Never has there been greater fuss over smaller stakes until we come to Justice Stevens' bottom line. If this has been a constitutional crisis, the fates gave us the right time to have one.

Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St Clair's new book, Five Days That Shook the World:Seattle and Beyond is forthcoming from Verso. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2000 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.