Tally Hoedown

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
Nov. 19 2000 6:53 AM

Tally Hoedown

The ongoing drama of election fortnight dominates every front. All three leads headline the day's most concrete development: The uncertified but complete tally of Florida absentee ballots has swelled George W. Bush's overall lead to 930 votes. The net gain of 630 Bush votes gives him some breathing room in the event of a manual recount, which (if it is included in the vote tally) may no longer sway the election. At the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times, the absentee count shares the headline with the Bush camp's latest derision of manual recounts. Yesterday, a Bush spokesman said GOP election observers witnessed widespread chad abuse by hand counters--ballots being used as fans, appended with Post-it notes, etc--confirming that the process is unreliable and susceptible to human error or worse. The allegations come on the eve of a Monday court fight that could either bring George W. Bush a certified victory in Florida or provide Al Gore with a court mandate to continue to wait for the completion of hand counts.

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The continued controversy and confusion surrounding the treatment of absentee ballots may provide fodder for yet another legal challenge. Centrally at issue is whether ballots without postmarks--mostly military mail--should have been counted as valid. Disregarding a memorandum by the Florida secretary of state, many counties opted to discount such ballots. The New York Times reports that nearly 40 percent of all absentee ballots were disqualified and that 60 percent of the disqualifications came in counties won by Al Gore. It would have been nice to know the historical significance of the 40 percent figure, but none of the papers give it. Bush people have charged that Gore supporters are attempting to disenfranchise the military vote, prompting the Gore camp to respond that all decisions to reject ballots were made by duly elected officials whose party affiliations are beside the point. Ironically, a mere 48 hours ago it was Democrats who were charging partisan foul play by the Florida secretary of state as Republicans asserted the just prerogative of elected officials.

All three leads quote an indignant Marc Racicot, the newly christened Bush manual recount guru who in his spare time works as governor of Montana: "This [hand counting] is a process that is completely untrustworthy." Racicot's list of grievances includes: ballots being used to fan sweltering vote counters, counting room floors littered with fallen chad, ballots trampled on, and a nonballot-related charge that 39 felons were permitted to vote in Broward and Miami-Dade counties. The LAT reports that the debate grew "so bitter--and ludicrous" that Republicans gravely alleged that, in an effort to conceal evidence, Democrat-loyal vote counters were eating chad that they had surreptitiously punched for Al Gore.

The LAT reports that Monday's all-important Florida Supreme Court showdown on hand recounts hinges on conflicting interpretations of a single phrase in Florida law: The parties will argue over what constitutes an "error in the vote tabulation." Republican lawyers have adopted the position of the Florida secretary of state in asserting that an "error" refers only to those cases when the tabulation system malfunctions. Democrats contend that the machine's failure to count the now-infamous hanging-chad ballots is all the error they need to demand a recount. The WP adds that the Gore brief describes as "Kafkaesque" the efforts by Harris to thwart a recount. The WP reports that Benjamin Ginsburg, one of the attorneys appearing for the GOP, argued for and won a manual recount for a Republican in a 1994 congressional race. The LAT piece goes on to speculate that the court might delay its ruling until the manual vote tallies are in, which the NYT says might not happen until early December.

The WP runs the most specifically grim forecast of the election to date, going through several plausible scenarios in which the election remains unresolved into the new year. If the Florida state legislature involves itself in the state's electoral mess--and they have recently been heard making noises about a federal law that allows state legislatures to choose electors in the event that the voters cannot decide--then that would seem to benefit Bush as Republicans control both houses of the legislature. Similarly, if the election ultimately finds its way to the House of Representatives, either because the Electoral College failed to declare a winner by majority or because they believed the Electoral College was somehow "tainted," then Bush would again appear to have the upper hand since Republicans control 28 of the new state delegations to the House. If, however, the election ultimately goes to the courts or the potentially 50-50 Senate (in which Gore would be the tie-breaker), then all bets are off.

Taking a closer look at punch-card voting machines, the WP reports that the federal government has "called for their elimination" since 1988. The story waits until the final paragraph to reveal the information with the most bearing on the present malaise. In most places in the country (but not Florida), election workers make all chad-related decisions (read: discern the intention of voters) before the first machine count is done, making sure that each ballot that goes through the machine is cleanly punched.

As if to remind readers that there is a world outside the presidential election, the NYT and LAT front in-depth reflections on Serbia and Bosnia respectively. Just weeks after a popular protest ended Slobodan Milosevic's disastrous 10-year run as president, the NYT reports that weariness and cynicism have quickly replaced euphoria as the mood on the streets of Belgrade. A Yugoslav radio newscast that used to kick off each show with a hearty Milosevic crooning "I love you" now begins with new President Vladimir Kostunica's solemn pledge that "power will not change me." A Serbian playwright gravely wonders to the NYT whether the qualities that make a good opposition leader are sufficient to heal "this ruined country." The LAT piece makes the case for continued U.S. involvement in Bosnia. Five years after the Dayton accord, Bosnia is still bitterly divided along ethnic cleavages and incapable of sustaining the rule of law on its own. The report argues that U.S.-heavy NATO forces are all that is keeping the Bosnians, Serbs, and Croats "from one another's throats" but does not explicitly connect this to Bush's and Gore's contrasting positions on troop deployment.

The WP front reports that Clinton "choked up" while digging for the remains of a U.S. pilot shot down over the Vietnamese countryside. The NYT called it "one of the most emotional moments of his presidency" but went on to caution that it is too early to know what will come of this clearly historic visit.

Perhaps in an attempt to add some levity to a front that otherwise includes election strife and Clinton's visit to Vietnam, the WP runs a cuddly story (with nice pictures too) on the two giant pandas in China that are slated to be the 2001 gate attraction at D.C.'s National Zoo. The story quotes handlers' affectionate reflections on the two distinct personalities--Tian Tian (male) and Mei Xiang (female)--whose playful competitions will delight zoo-goers. Whereas the former is cocky, outgoing, and prone to mischief, strutting around as if he owns the place, the latter is aloof, reserved, nervous, but also can get excited easily. The comparison bears a striking (almost too good to be true) resemblance to the WP's fronted character analyses of the two would-be presidents. (According to a panda researcher, the two bears even hail from prominent panda families.) Today's Papers would like to point out two key differences between the pandas and their candidate analogies: 1) Despite their differences and even while rough-housing, the pandas love each other--often "wrestling playfully late into the night"; 2) they're both going to Washington next year, and people are happy about it. Maybe an educational excursion to the zoo should be required for all presidential hopefuls.