W. Standard

W. Standard

How you look at things.
Dec. 1 2000 11:30 PM

W. Standard

Three days ago, this column explained why Al Gore's claim that he won Florida could never be proved. Republicans think this means George W. Bush won the state. They have it backward. If we can't know whether Gore won Florida, we can't know whether Bush lost it. So why should Bush be presumed the winner? Because, according to Republicans, Bush got more votes under the "rules." A numerical advantage secured by "changing the rules" would be invalid, they contend. That's a good argument against the legitimacy of a Gore presidency. It's a good argument against the legitimacy of a Bush presidency, too. In Florida, Bush has bent every principle, fudged every distinction, pocketed every unfair advantage, and matched every hypocrisy.


Bush's surrogates mock Democrats for supposing that human inspectors, by studying an ambiguously marked ballot, can "divine the intent of the voter." The verb "divine" conveys two criticisms: that the manual counters are judging ballots in mysterious ways and that they're pretending to know the voter's thoughts as only God can. But Bush has no trouble trusting machines, whose judgments of ballots are even more mysterious. "As Americans have watched on television, they have seen for themselves that manual counting ... introduces human error and politics into the vote-counting process," he complained a week ago. Bush never explains why, if you shouldn't trust a process you can see, you should trust a process you can't see. Machines have their own documented rate of error—which exceeds the margin of difference between Bush and Gore even under ideal circumstances—and you're not small enough or fast enough to watch them sort each ballot. When a human inspector misreads a ballot, Republican and Democratic observers are on hand to catch it. When a machine misreads a ballot, nobody knows.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

While chiding Gore for presuming to know each voter's intent, Bush does the same. Arguing before the Florida Supreme Court last week, Bush attorney Michael Carvin protested that Gore was claiming "the only way to discern voters' intent is through manual recounts. But we do know what the voters' intent is, at least presumptively, because we have certified returns from 67 counties" based on machine counts. In other words, if the machine failed to count your ballot, you didn't intend to vote. At a Bush campaign briefing three days ago, Bush lawyer Irv Terrell applied this theory to the 10,000 machine-rejected ballots in Miami-Dade County, calling them "nonvotes." "When [Democrats] say that these votes are votes, they're wrong," Terrell scoffed. "They've been found to not be votes." When challenged to explain why these mechanical "findings" shouldn't be reviewed by human eyes, Terrell denied that anybody doubted the machines' accuracy. Humans can't read minds, but machines can.

If humans can't be trusted to review the work of machines, how do we know the machines are accurate? Bush's lawyers keep evading this dilemma. At the Florida Supreme Court, Carvin was asked what could be done if a voter punched her ballot as instructed, but the machine didn't record it. "We'd have to know whether … the machine malfunctioned," he replied. "What you need to do … is look at the ballot, pursuant to some objective criteria, and … figure out whether [the voter] intended it. But as we know, and as the colloquy before indicates, that is a standardless and subjective inquiry." In short, since humans aren't fit to second-guess machines, nothing could be done.

You could argue that Bush is consistent, at least, in stipulating that any ballot ignored by a machine count is a nonvote. But he isn't. A machine recount in Nassau County missed 218 ballots that had been included in the county's original tally. The exclusion of those ballots cost Bush 52 net votes. The county election board threw out the machine recount and reported the original numbers instead. Did Bush stand by the machine recount? No, he sided with the board. At Tuesday's Bush campaign briefing, less than five minutes after Irv Terrell dismissed the excluded Miami-Dade ballots as "nonvotes," Bush lawyer Daryl Bristow said of the excluded Nassau ballots, "They are not nonvotes; they are not overvotes; they were real votes." Why were the machine-ignored ballots in Nassau counted, unlike the machine-ignored ballots in Miami-Dade? "To express the will of [those] 218 people," said Bristow.

Bush says the Democrats' manual recounts were "selective" and "subjective," whereas the machine recount that favored Bush was uniform and complete. "Every single vote in Florida has been recounted," Dick Cheney asserted on Nov. 28. "The votes have all been recounted," agreed Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes. But that's simply false. On Nov. 15, the Los Angeles Times reported that "at least 16 of Florida's 67 counties failed to recount every ballot cast in the election. Some counties simply checked their computer vote tallies. Others just electronically rescanned their absentee ballots. Some examined ballots in only a portion of their precincts." The machine recount was executed selectively and subjectively, just like the hand recounts.

Bush says manual counts are unfair because they lack "uniform standards," causing votes to be "evaluated differently in different parts of Florida." But machines, too, lack uniform standards. Many pro-Gore counties in Florida used punch-card systems that on average find no presidential votes on 4 percent of ballots cast. Many pro-Bush counties used optical scan systems that on average find no presidential votes on 1.5 percent of ballots cast. Different evaluations by different technologies gave Bush more votes. In his condemnation of manual counting, Bush also implies that machine counts and manual counts in Florida are strictly separate. They aren't. The "automatic" statewide tally on which Bush hangs his claim to victory includes ballots that were hand-counted by officials in several Republican counties because machines had failed to tabulate them.

On the question of overseas military ballots, Bush, like Gore, betrays every principle he invokes elsewhere. Having argued that rules shouldn't be changed to count flawed civilian ballots for Gore, Bush sued several counties to change their rules to count flawed military ballots for himself. Having criticized selective recounts in Democratic counties, Bush's attorneys sought selective recounts of military ballots in Republican counties. Having held civilians accountable for failing to follow ballot instructions precisely, Bush surrogates accused Democrats of "denying our military the right to vote [based] on hypertechnicalities." Brushing aside the illegibility of postmarks on some military ballots, House Majority Leader Dick Armey protested, "How can you read a dimple and not read a smudge?"

In Palm Beach County, where Gore lost thousands of votes because Democratic voters failed to request replacement ballots after punching the wrong hole for Gore, the Bush camp shrugs that those are the rules. In Seminole County, where Republican voters failed to complete absentee ballot request forms, the Bush camp defends the Republican county election official who let GOP operatives spend hours in her office completing the forms so that Bush could gain thousands of votes. What about all the Democratic voters in Seminole County who never got their ballots because their incomplete request forms were left sitting in the same office, untouched? Sorry, says Montana Gov. Marc Racicot, Bush's point man in Florida. "We've never had, in this country, a perfect election."

None of this excuses Gore's behavior. His serial betrayal of one principle after another—the national popular vote is irrelevant (until I've won it), every vote must be counted (except military ballots), election decisions belong to local officials (until they get in my way)—has validated the Republican charge that he would do anything to win. Bush claimed to be different. He said he would uphold honor and integrity, not just the law. Integrity means completeness and consistency. In Florida, Bush abandoned both. His campaign caps an eight-year Republican struggle to get rid of a president who was willing to keep his grip on power by staying just within the letter of the law. No matter who wins Florida, we've elected another. 

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