Ballot Box

More Chad Woe

A week ago, I compared the post-Election Day behavior of the two sides and concluded that the Bush team was behaving less fairly and straightforwardly than the Gore team. In another column, I argued that if George W. Bush gained office by cutting off hand recounts and ruling valid votes out of order, he would rightly be regarded as an illegitimate president.

Over the last few days, the situation has changed a good deal. Bush is still acting like a sore winner, alleging fraud where there is none and decrying chaos he is striving to create. But now Al Gore, who was for a time acting more honorably than Bush, has sacrificed most of his ethical advantage by also trying to lay claim to the White House on an unfair and arbitrary basis. The change took place over the weekend when Democrats made themselves into hypocrites by demanding relentless strictness about Bush-friendly absentee votes while pressing for ever more lenient treatment of Democrat-leaning dimpled ballots. Through this double standard, Gore’s pregnant chad threaten to give birth to an equally illegitimate presidency.

First consider the Gore side’s attitude about dimpled or pregnant chad–ballots on which the little rectangular paper chip is dented but not punctured. Democrats argue that these votes should count, and they have several legs to stand on. Dimpled chad suggest an intent to vote a certain way, at least in most cases. There is also a precedent for counting them in other elections and under other state laws that are clearer than Florida’s. In Texas, for instance, Bush signed a bill clearly stating that dimpled chad count.

But it’s not an open-and-shut case. While the vast majority of dimpled chad ballots probably do indicate an intent to vote, they also represent a failure to follow instructions that say you must punch all the way through and clear the doohickeys from the backside of your ballot. Counting all dimpled chad as valid votes means misreading the intent of any voter who fondled the trigger, but couldn’t bring himself to pull it. It also injects an undesirable element of subjectivity into the vote counting process. Partly for these reasons, the Democratic-controlled canvassing boards in Palm Beach, Miami-Dade, and Broward counties have been reluctant to include dimpled chad ballots in their hand recounts and are hoping the Florida Supreme Court will tell them whether they should.

I can’t offer a strong view on the question of whether the dimpled chad ought to count. Like my colleagues at “Kausfiles,” I would in the abstract prefer a bright-line test that says you must achieve penetration for your ballot to be tallied. I also wish that there could be a consistent standard from Florida county to Florida county. But we don’t have the luxury of creating Florida’s standard afresh. We have to follow state law and precedent. And these indicators point in the direction of counting pregnant chad, though not without some ambiguity.

All that is only to say that the Gore side is not being unreasonable or unfair in pushing to include dimpled chad in the final vote count. But the Democrats must realize that to include such chad is to reach boldly in the direction of vote counting permissiveness. It elevates the value of “counting every vote” over the value of “making certain every vote falls within the rules.” And if you’re going to take the position that every vote that can be counted should be counted, you have to take it consistently. When it comes to absentee ballots, however, the Gore side has taken precisely the opposite position. Democrats have been trying to rule out ballots with any degree of imperfection when those ballots seem more likely to favor Bush.

Consider first the battle over absentee votes in Seminole County. There, Republican campaign workers “corrected” a large number of absentee ballot requests that were initially rejected by the country supervisor of elections because they lacked a required “voter registration number.” A Democratic lawyer who thinks this was illegal has gone to court to try to throw out not only the arguably improper votes, but all 15,000 absentee ballots cast in Seminole County because the arguably improper ones can no longer be separated from the proper ones. If you want to count dimpled chad, I don’t think you should go around trying to invalidate ballots in which a voter made a minor mistake. But Democrats are going even further than that, trying to disenfranchise more than 10,000 Seminole County residents who did nothing wrong at all. And the Gore campaign has done nothing to dissociate itself from this lawsuit; should it succeed, Gore will be delighted to win on the basis of the proceeds. 

Then there is the matter of the overseas military ballots. Some of them lack dates or signatures, and it’s fair to object to these even if you want to be permissive in more ambiguous cases. But in counties throughout Florida, Democratic observers pressed successfully to reject late-arriving military absentee ballots that merely lacked legible postmarks. This is a debatable requirement in cases where ballots didn’t require stamps. In attempting to defend these challenges, Democrats ended up sounding exactly like Republicans arguing against chad. Gore supporters cited the ineptitude of military voters and their failure to follow the instructions telling them to obtain postmarks for their absentee ballots. Again, it’s fine to be a hard-ass and say marginal votes shouldn’t count. But if you take this position, consistency requires that you kiss your chad goodbye.

This gambit generated bad publicity for the Gore side, and as a result Democrats subsequently backed off. Both Joseph Lieberman and Gore’s ally Bob Butterworth, the Florida attorney general, have now said that the rejected military ballots should be re-examined in the notional statewide recount. But as with Gore’s belated call for a statewide recount, this gesture in the direction of fairness may have come too late to make any practical difference.

To be sure, Republicans have been just as hypocritical as the Democrats on the question of what votes should count. Bush surrogates who make legalistic arguments against even dangling chad want to suspend all the rules for our boys overseas. Republicans objecting to rules being changed in the middle of the game by Gore supporters now want to change the rules in the middle of the game. Some, such as Bush spokesman Karen Hughes, have suggested that Democrats don’t want military votes to count because Democrats are unpatriotic and anti-defense. As Thomas Friedman argues in today’s column, such charges are reckless, vicious, and unjustified.

But we already knew that Bush didn’t care about fairness, only about winning. The news is that the same is now true of Al Gore.