The Electoral Kindergarten

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
Nov. 16 2000 7:33 AM

The Electoral Kindergarten

Everybody leads with the latest from Florida's presidential swamp. The coverage lays out yesterday's main developments: 1) The Florida Supreme Court refused to stop the manual recount of ballots going on in several predominantly Democratic counties. 2) A federal appeals court agreed to hear, starting this morning, the Bush campaign's lawsuit asking for a stop to all such hand counting. 3) Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris announced that she had decided to ignore the results of any county manual recounts and would consider the state's final tally to be comprised of the county numbers she certified Tuesday (according to which George W. Bush has a 300-vote statewide lead) plus the overseas absentee ballot count, a total she intends to certify as final on Saturday. 4) The Gore campaign decided to go to state court to force Harris to consider ongoing recounts. 5) Al Gore himself went on prime-time television last night to propose that he and Bush agree now to abide by the results of the ongoing manual counts or even, if Bush preferred, by the results of manually recounting the entire state, in return for Gore's promise to abandon all further legal action. 6) Bush appeared on national television a few hours later, rejecting Gore's offer.

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Boiling down these complications is a tremendous challenge to headline writers. For instance, the late metro edition New York Times header reads "FLORIDA SAYS NO TO FURTHER RECOUNTS AS BUSH DISMISSES OVERTURE FROM GORE," which confuses a bit because of the state Supreme Court decision in 1) above and fails to represent the confluence of the Bush and Harris courses. Better would have been "TOP FLORIDA ELECTION OFFICIAL SAYS NO TO FURTHER RECOUNTS AND BUSH SAYS SAME TO GORE."

The Wall Street Journal op-ed page carries a piece by Bob Dole in which he complains about the NYT's depiction yesterday of Harris as merely politically motivated. Dole probably won't like the paper's lead today either. Although Harris cited her duty under Florida law in announcing that she would ignore all recounts, the Times says her decision "seemed a clear tactical move to freeze the election results in Mr. Bush's favor, and she was under no legal compulsion to make it."

The main WSJ Florida story sees the Bush turndown of Gore as the evaporation of any chance for an amicable solution. And tucked here and there in the papers are some new hints about how unamicable things could get. For instance, a Journal front-pager reports that Bob Beckel, Walter Mondale's presidential campaign manager, "has been checking into the background of Republican electors, with an eye toward persuading them to vote for Mr. Gore." The paper says Beckel is "working independently" and also that the Gore camp has disavowed any intention of seeking to sway Republican electors. And the NYT reports that Rep. Tom DeLay has circulated a memo to congressional Republicans stating that the House and Senate can reject a state's electoral votes if they decide the votes are tainted. The paper quotes a Republican colleague of DeLay's as describing the memo as similar to the document DeLay's office sent out in the run-up to the impeachment of President Clinton.

The USA Today lead says that the total of overseas Florida absentee ballots it reported yesterday was too high and that the number is in fact 2,080. The Los Angeles Times front says that the number is "upward of 1,850." The paper says that based on absentee ballots already counted, these are likely to favor Bush. The NYT front says they number about 2,200 and that if they follow the pattern of the counties of registration, they will favor Bush 54.8 percent to 42.9 percent.

A NYT inside story on President Clinton's visit today to Vietnam refers to his "reciting the American mantra, unchanged since the end of the war 25 years ago, that Washington's main priority in Vietnam is a continuing search for the remains of service members missing in action." And the paper quotes an expert saying that with this stance, Clinton is tethering future U.S. Vietnam policy to an "artifact of the past that has little bearing on current national interests." The story also mentions down low that, in contrast to its intensive efforts to help locate U.S. MIAs, the Vietnamese government has no formal program for locating its own lost soldiers, thought to number 300,000. Lower still, the story mentions that the Vietnamese government is expected to ask President Clinton to do more to help it overcome the effects of the war, reflecting Hanoi's "contention" that thousands of its people still suffer the effects of Agent Orange. But the story should have consolidated and expanded these points up high to notice that the current official American view of the tragedy of Vietnam is all about America. If U.S. MIAs are deserving of Vietnamese efforts, why aren't Vietnamese MIAs deserving of American efforts? If the U.S. government can spend millions on the very real damage suffered accidentally by U.S. vets who worked with Agent Orange, why can't it spend equal or greater amounts (instead of nothing at all) to help those on whom the stuff was poured intentionally?

The Washington Post runs an inside story on the latest case (in Texas) of a convicted murderer whose death sentence is being questioned because he has a low IQ. Following the general newspaper template for these cases, the story goes high with the man's advocates' description of him as having the intellectual capacity of a first-grader. To be fair, the piece also goes high saying that case prosecutors think his crime showed him to be "calculating." However the piece makes the mistake of not fleshing out that point until the 16th paragraph, where it is revealed that the killer, who had once helped install some home appliances for his victim, confessed to police that he returned to her house before raping and stabbing her to death under the pretense that he was there to check on those appliances. The NYT editorial on the case leaves out these details altogether. But it's just bad newspapering to push this sort of evidence of planning and dissembling down so deep--or ignore it altogether--when it's proof of the man's culpability, regardless of how badly he would do on a standardized test. Moral: Don't trust any journalism about crime where the actual details of the offense are hard to find or MIA.

One Kenneth J. Dow from New York City makes a brilliant observation about the election in a letter to the NYT. Contrary to the emerging conventional wisdom that Indecision 2000 impugns the concept of the Electoral College, Dow notes that without it, given the incredible closeness of the overall popular vote, we would right now be looking at inquiries and challenges not just in Florida, but in every state.