If you’d told me two weeks ago that the result of the election was going to come down to chad, I’d have assumed that Gov. Bush had raised new doubts about his readiness for office by placing an African country in South America. But as we all now know, chad (or is it chads?) are the dingleberries clinging to imperfectly perforated punch-card ballots. And from these dingleberries hangs the fate of the republic, or at least the choice of our next president.
We don’t know how it’s going to come out, but the struggle has provided a useful preview of the political abilities of the two potential administrations. Specifically, we’ve had a chance to see both sides mislead, spin, violate their stated principles, and subordinate the interests of fairness to their interest in victory. While waiting for the big verdict, let’s litigate the winner in each of these smaller contests.
The Gore side took an early lead in this category with the claim at a Thursday press conference that Palm Beach County’s butterfly ballot was “completely illegal.” In the words of Gore lawyer Kendall Coffey, “What the law requires is a simple linear listing so that the boxes are punched in the same order.” In fact, the relevant section of Florida law appears to apply only to paper ballots.
But later the same day, the Bush campaign exceeded the Gore side’s deception with two misleading claims of its own. The first was that the Palm Beach butterfly ballot was similar to one used in Cook County, Ill., home to Gore honcho William Daley. In fact, the butterfly ballot used in Cook County is merely a judicial retention ballot, offering “yes” or “no” choices on two facing pages. It doesn’t create a hazard of punching the wrong hole. The second Bush distortion was spokesman Ari Fleischer’s effort to diminish the significance of the 19,120 Palm Beach votes invalidated by double voting. “In the 1996 presidential election, 14,872 ballots were invalidated for double counting in Palm Beach County, a figure comparable to the number of ballots dismissed this year, considering this year’s higher turnout,” Fleischer said on Thursday. This comparison was cited by the New York Times’ editorial page the following day, but it’s not right. The 14,872 ballots invalidated in 1996 are comparable to the approximately 30,000 votes invalidated for all reasons in Palm Beach County in 2000. It is not known how many of those 14,872 votes were disqualified for double voting.
Winner: Bush on quantity.
The Gore side’s spin began with Warren Christopher and William Daley repeating the assertion that their man won the popular vote and in fact got more votes than any previous presidential candidate except Ronald Reagan. When they started saying this, they didn’t have much basis for assuming that Gore would in the end carry the popular vote. Now they have slightly more. But even so, so what? The president is chosen by the electoral vote. In this category, one might also mention Gore’s own assertion, at the White House yesterday, that he cared about the process, not the result. Would he care as much about the process if the incipient result tilted in his favor?
But Gore has provided nothing to compare in audacity or amount to the spin coming out of the Bush campaign. In line with Karl Rove’s nearly disastrous tactic of acting like Bush had the election sewn up ahead of time, Bush spokespersons began calling their man “the winner” even before the automatic machine recount was completed. They then adopted the pose of referring to Bush and Dick Cheney as the “president-elect” and “vice president-elect.” The campaign had them photographed in a faux Oval Office setting in the Texas governor’s mansion. The spinning continued with James Baker’s claim that in 1960 and 1976, “both Vice President Nixon and President Ford put the country’s interests first. They accepted the vote for the good of the country.” Slate’s David Greenberg has debunked the former claim. As for Ford, he conceded to Jimmy Carter because he lost the election and didn’t have any real hope of winning on a recount.
Next there was Baker’s Friday argument that counting votes by hand is the equivalent of reading chicken entrails because it tries to “divine the intent of the voter.” Divining the intent of voters is known less pejoratively as tabulating votes, which is sometimes done by machines, and sometimes by hand. “Furthermore, the more often ballots are recounted, especially by hand, the more likely it is that human errors, like lost ballots, and other risks, will be introduced,” Baker said. “This frustrates the very reason why we have moved from hand counting to machine counting.” In fact, we use machine counting because it’s faster and cheaper. For the sake of accuracy, counting by hand is preferred under both Florida law and one that Gov. Bush signed in Texas, which calls for recounts by hand in some cases.
Lastly, there was Baker’s demand this morning that the Gore campaign accept a ridiculous deal to stop recounting votes at 5 p.m. today because of the negative effect that the dispute was having on financial markets. As Baker spoke, the market indices showed at the bottom of the CNN screen. The Dow was up 119 points, the Nasdaq 134 points.
Winner: Bush on quantity and quality.
There’s only one egregious entry in this category so far, which is the Bush campaign filing a voting rights suit in federal court after decrying the Gore side’s attempt to achieve a result through litigation. The Bush side’s far-fetched legal argument was that recounting by hand was unconstitutional in all cases. After this case was dismissed, Baker reverted to his earlier position that it would be deeply wrong to have the election decided by a judge.
But Gore could still take the self-contradiction match-up if he wins the Florida recount and then insists that Bush drop requests for recounts in other states. The tables could also turn on the issue of delay. At the moment, the Bush side is arguing that Gore must not postpone finality in hopes of producing a result in his favor. Should Gore win the Florida recount, we can expect Bill Daley and Warren Christopher to take up the case the country needs closure.
Winner: Bush on quantity and quality.
Democrats didn’t ask for a statewide recount by hand. They asked for it only in four counties that they thought were likely to produce swings in their favor. When the Bush side let the deadline pass to make the same request for a hand recount in counties favorable to them, Democrats did not decry the injustice that might result. “I would not want to win the presidency by a few votes cast in error or misinterpreted or not counted, and I don’t think Gov. Bush wants that either,” Gore said. So Gore wouldn’t accept a victory based on recounts by hand only in the counties that favored him? However, the Gore side seems to have belatedly realized that it was pushing for an unfair result and has apparently tried to make amends According to a column by Ronald Brownstein in today’s Los Angeles Times, the Gore campaign would be willing to accept the results of a statewide recount by hand so long as the Bush side agrees to abide by it as well.
The Bush side, for its part, has been trying to delay or prevent a legitimate recount of votes in Florida out of concern that the more complete tally won’t favor Bush. This is a far greater affront to fairness than the Gore side’s implicit willingness to benefit from Bush’s failure to assert his right to a recount by hand.
Winner: Bush on quality.
So based on what we’ve seen since Election Day, I think it’s possible to draw some tentative conclusions about the two possible administrations. An idealist might note that the Gore team has fought a more honorable fight. But a cynic would say that only the Bush team has demonstrated the requisite skills for the job.