Previously in Politics & Prose:
Does Gore Deserve to Win? (November 1, 2000)
Jack Beatty on Gore's many failures -- and why none of them outweigh the importance of defeating Bush.
My Father's Politics (November 1, 2000)
Scott Stossel on George Packer's Blood of the Liberals and the plight of the would-be liberal today.
Fuzzy Economics (October 12, 2000)
George W. Bush is right -- the era of big government being over is over. Even if he's the one elected. Christopher Caldwell explains.
The New New South (September 13, 2000)
In recent decades the South has been a Republican stronghold. Times are changing, Christopher Caldwell writes.
The Tyranny of Belief (September 13, 2000)
Some politicians, including Joe Lieberman, would blur the line between religion and politics. They're gravely misguided, Jack Beatty argues.
Leftward Bound (August 23, 2000)
Can you teach a New Democrat old tricks? Christopher Caldwell on Gore's gamble with Lieberman.
The Legacy Haunting Gore (August 9, 2000)
Trade, not scandal, Jack Beatty argues, is the legacy of the Clinton years that could cost Gore the election.
More Politics & Prose in Atlantic Unbound.
Discuss this article in the Politics & Society conference of Post & Riposte.
November 22, 2000
An imaginary dialogue about the presidential election of November, 2000
by Jack Beatty
Let me now ... warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party, generally. This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind.... It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with illfounded jealousies and false alarms; kindles the animosity of one part against another; foments occasionally riot and insurrection.Democrat: Why do you say, as the National Review does on its cover, that Gore is trying to steal the election?
Republican: Two reasons. Because he wants to hand-count the ballots of selected counties where he is likely to pick up votes, and because hand-counting is inherently unfair -- it's subject to political influence and human error. He wants to hold the magnifying glass of the hand-recount to these pro-Gore counties until he gets the result he wants. And he's not just finding votes, but manufacturing them through biased counting.
D: So why not hand-count all the ballots cast in Florida to foil Gore's selected-county recount strategy?
R: The vote has been counted and recounted and in some places counted again; Floridians have spoken. A statewide hand-count of the ballots would be justified only if there had been systemic problems in the voting -- errant software in the machines, for example, or widespread fraud or voter intimidation. Those things have not occurred, or if they have occurred, not on the scale required by Florida law for Secretary of State Katherine Harris to order hand-counting or to accept hand-counted ballots after the legal deadline for the submission of all ballots.
D: But wait. You are treating this as if compliance with the technicalities of Florida election law were paramount. The election is about the presidency. Doesn't ensuring the legitimacy of the next President's election -- the public's belief that all the votes were counted fairly and accurately -- matter more? The Florida laws, surely, are a means to the end of guaranteeing an election result that the public will accept.
R: Legitimacy is conferred automatically by the Electoral College. Whoever wins 270 electoral votes is the legitimate next President. Legitimacy is not conferred by public opinion about the fairness of elections. Anyway, who is this "public"? That is your way of saying "Gore supporters." The American people are split over who won or should win the election. When Gore concedes, his supporters, however grudgingly, will accept George Bush as the legitimate President. That's how it works in America. You people say there is a cloud over this election, but Gore created the cloud by pursuing fruitless and unjustified recounts. Once he concedes, it will go away.
D: Hand-counting: you say it is unfair, subject to human error. But makers of the vote-counting machines like the ones used in Florida say that hand-counting is more accurate than machine-counting.
R: Machine errors are distributed randomly, but that's not true of hand-counting errors. Every time ballots are handled prior to being counted their integrity is disturbed. There have been reports of chads being eaten, of boxes of ballots being dropped on the floor, with chads flying off. The lighting is bad in the rooms where the counting is proceeding. Many of the counters are elderly. Furthermore, divining voter intent from chads, dimpled, pregnant, or whatever -- some the result of ballot mishandling -- is subjective. There is no single agreed standard for judgment. How many standards have they used already in these recounts? Team Gore has pressured Broward County to lower the bar until Gore wins. "How many votes are we shy? That many? Okay, let's count dimples as Gore votes. Still not enough? Count blemishes." Our third objection is that the people making these judgments are Democrats in Democrat counties. That is on its face unfair.
D: Unfair? Consider how the process works. A counter picks up the ballot and declares whether it is for Bush or Gore. An observer from one of the parties looks over her shoulder and agrees. She passes the ballot to a second counter who agrees. An observer from the other party, finally, has to agree. Four steps. Four people. Both parties represented. If any one of the four disagrees the ballot is set aside and sent to the canvassing board for final judgment. If both parties must sign off on each ballot, where's the unfairness? Put another way: if each individual ballot is counted fairly, how can the sum total of these fairly counted ballots produce an unfair result?
R: You are leaving out the context. Those Republican observers are in venues peopled predominantly by Democrats and thus are subject to social pressures subtle and overt as they make their judgments. They are only human. They okay ballots -- who knows how many -- they would not okay if the counting were not held in venues crowded with Democrats manifesting their displeasure every time a Republican observer objects to a ballot.
D: But no one is supposed to talk in these rooms. The counters either say Bush or Gore or agree or disagree. There is no booing or sighing or pressuring allowed.
R: There is talking, and moreover there is body language. There are grimaces.
D: And there were grimaces for 150 years of hand-counting in America, yet hand-counts were honored. Until they might cost George W. Bush the presidency.
R: There is still the issue of the disputed ballots. The three-person boards ruling on them are made up of Democrats or have Democrat majorities.
D: So you think party affiliation rules out impartiality?
D: Then why should vote totals from "Republican" counties certified by "Republican" officials be accepted by Democrats?
R: Because in nearly all the "Republican" counties, all we have are machine-counted ballots. Any errors introduced were random. The results can't be questioned -- Democrats, Republicans, and Independents accept the 99.9 percent accurate results of electronic voting all over the country. Machines make mistakes
D: I'll say they do. In Palm Beach County there was a discrepancy of 900 votes between the results of the electronic recounts. In the three disputed counties something like 25,000 ballots are recorded as showing no vote for President.
R: But those counts were not biased. In rejecting the electronic count and suing for hand-recounts, Gore is seeking to substitute a political count for an impartial electronic count. Voting machines were invented and universally embraced to escape the corruption of political counts. Gore wants to win the presidency on procedures and tactics that would shame Boss Tweed.
D: Well, if hand-counting is inherently corrupt, why does a Texas law signed by Governor Bush call for hand-counting in disputed elections? And that law, by the way, accepts dimples as signs of voter intent. Hand-counting is okay in Texas. It is okay in New Mexico, where it took a hand-count to determine the winner. It is even okay in the Florida "Republican" counties where it's been used. In short, you have no principled objection to hand-counting. You are just against it where it might help Al Gore.
R: That Texas law only comes into play in cases of acts of God, like power failures, or machine breakdowns, or fraud. None of that has been alleged in Florida. Gore is asking the Florida Supreme Court to accept hand-counted ballots from Democrat counties not because the election was disrupted by a power failure, not because the software running the machines went haywire, and not because of fraud. He is arguing that the hand-counts should be accepted because in the normal operation of the voting machines he claims he lost votes that would make him a winner in Florida. But Bush lost votes too. And we are willing to live with that.
D: That is disingenuous. You say it only because Bush is ahead and will win unless the hand-recounted ballots are included. Republican spokespeople have been making these transparently self-serving arguments throughout. The intellectual laziness of your candidate has set a sorry model for you. Although you slam Gore for appealing to the courts, you have no objection to using them when you think they might help you -- despite eons of Republican bloviation about federalism, states' rights, and local control, you asked a federal court to stop the recount. Florida legislators and the infernal Tom DeLay have hinted that if Gore wins by hand-counted but certified ballots you might refuse to accept his electors and throw the election into the Republican-controlled House. They are willing to bypass the Electoral College to make Bush President! If the Florida Supreme Court, the arbiter of Florida law, decides in Gore's favor, why won't you accede to its verdict, abide by the results, and pull back from the abyss opened by DeLay?
R: Because the judges are Democrats appointed by Democrat governors. That is a Democrat court.
D: This is radical doctrine indeed. If a Republican felon is sentenced by a Democratic court, according to your reasoning he does not have to accept its verdict; and laws passed just with Democratic votes or with strong Democratic majorities should have no legitimacy for Republicans. You treat party affiliation as an irremediable taint. Disinterest, objectivity, fairness is impossible for "Democrats." There is no truth, only party truth. This mentality is Stalinist. You refuse the one certain method for establishing the truth -- a statewide hand-count -- and instead propound a politics of rancid suspicion that has only one precedent in American political history: Southern polemic against, and nullification of, Northern laws. Somehow, maddened by Clinton's success on your issues, out-thought and out-argued and out-organized by the Democrats, your party elites have given way -- let's hope temporarily -- to radicalism, hatred, and paranoia.
R: That kind of language is so revealing. You can't help demonizing people who disagree with you. We believe in "party truth"! You branded Secretary of State Harris's lawful decision, upheld by a Florida judge, to exclude ballots that arrived after the lawful deadline -- you called it a party ruling. A Republican "hack," one Gore person called her. Al Gore refuses to accept "Republican" rulings. Your "Republicans" are incapable of objectivity, patriotism, fair-mindedness. The rancid suspicions, the paranoia, are on your side. You are the radicals -- stopping at nothing to win.
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Jack Beatty is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the author of The World According to Peter Drucker (1997) and The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley (1992).
All material copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.