Friday, October 29, 2004

John Kerry for President (1.2):
The Case Against Bush, Part 2--The Florida Recount
and What it Revealed

I’ve long intended to write something semi-substantial about the election debacle of 2000, but never managed to write more than fragments. I’ve wanted to write about it in part because it was one of the political turning points of my own life, and in part because I think that, despite the massive amount of ink that has been spilled over it, too little has actually been said.

I’m certainly not the most qualified person to write about it, but I’m not the least qualified, either. From November 8th 2000 until December 18th, I basically did nothing but read newspapers, watch the news, and surf the ‘net for information on the recount. I slept a little, but not much, and teaching takes up about nine hours per week. So that left a lot of time for me to try to absorb information about what was going on. I've read Bush v. Gore and analyzed some of the arguments in some depth, and have continued to think about the relevant issues for almost four years now.

Let me start by saying that I was a lukewarm Gore supporter, and that I did work for the Charlottesville Democrats at a very low level—working the phone banks, mostly. But I was torn about my decision, and every night I drove down to Democratic headquarters I had the same heated argument with myself about whether I was making a mistake. If McCain had won the Republican nomination, there is a good—but not quite 50%—chance that I would have voted and worked for him.

After the election, however, my position began to change. After about a week of almost non-stop observation of the election deadlock, something extremely unpleasant slowly began to dawn on me. There was something very different about the ways the two sides were conducting themselves. By nature and by training, I’m the sort of person who second-, third-, and fourth-guesses most of his judgments. At first I surmised that it was simply my (relatively weak) pro-Gore bias manifesting itself. But the evidence mounted. And mounted. The Republicans were, to say the very least, playing hardball. The Democrats were, to say the very least, not.

Now, a few Democrats had made some terribly injudicious comments soon after the election, and the Gore campaign’s initial reactions were purely strategic rather than principled. But the Democrats--presumably under the direction of Gore--quickly fell into line and began acting, more or less, like civilized members of a liberal democracy. Not so the Republicans. Their rhetoric, initially perhaps somewhat less vituperative than that of the Democrats, quickly pegged the invective meter. Gore was a sore loser. Gore was a cheater. Gore was trying to steal the election… In the face of the patently obvious fact that we simply had no idea who had won the election, the Republicans labeled Gore a sore loser—which, of course, presupposed that he had lost. And because he asked that the votes actually be counted, they accused him of trying to steal what, for all we knew, was rightfully his. The irrationality and immorality of it all made me feel physically sick more than once. It was hard for me to believe that this was happening in the United States.

Gore urged his supporters to stay home, pointing out that the campaign was over, that it was time for us to come together as Americans and make a rational and dispassionate decision about who had won. Republicans urged their supporters to protest, and sent interns to Florida to disrupt the recount, along with an “electronic command post” to control the mayhem. Veiled threats were made. At least one official was assaulted. To this day I still can’t believe that Republicans printed those absurd and disrespectful “Sore Loserman” signs. The Republicans clearly considered the battle over the recount simply to be a political campaign conducted by other means.

The Democrats’ main argument was, in short: every vote should be counted. The Republicans’ main argument was, in short: give us the f*cking Presidency. Now.

I watched this develop with growing horror, frustration and anger.

Many of the essential elements of this repugnant spectacle were on display in microcosm when James Baker and Warren Christopher appeared—separately but on the same day—on Meet the Press.

Christopher’s arguments were modest and reasonable. As always, his tone was measured and dispassionate. He stuck to the facts. He looked and sounded like what he was—a man struggling with great and weighty issues. He was clearly a statesman, not a salesman.

Baker was a different story entirely. His tone was dogmatic and derisive; he oozed contempt for anyone with the temerity to deny the indubitability of Bush’s right to power. His arguments were weak, his methods sophistical. Over and over he asserted that the votes had already been counted—and recounted, and recounted again. Over and over he asserted that Gore would ask for recount after recount until he got the result he wanted. Over and over he asserted that any manual recount must be flawed, that such recounts were purely “subjective,” that they involved attempts to “divine” the intent of the voter.

But none of these assertions were true.

As had already become clear, all experts on punch-card machines acknowledged that a machine count was expected to have about a 2% error rate. Machine counts are approximations, to be relied upon only in those cases in which the margin of victory is relatively large. For more accurate counts required by smaller margins of victory, it was always intended that more accurate manual recounts would be used. The margin of victory in this race was too small to be accurately detected by the available machinery. That is to say that many of the votes—votes that would make a difference in such a close election—had never been counted at all. Gore was in no way requesting that the votes be recounted until he won; he was asking that they all be counted at least once.

The word ‘divine,’ of course, had been carefully chosen by the Bush campaign in preference to the more accurate ‘discern.’ The term was used repeatedly by Republican operatives, in conjunction with allusions to Johnny Carson’s old “Great Carnak” schtick, and along with pictures of a slightly cross-eyed vote-counter in Florida staring earnestly and intently at a punch card. We were being intentionally manipulated. A conclusion about a matter of vital national importance was being hawked like a can of Coke, with catch phrases, and with ridicule for those who weren’t buying.

But there was, in fact, no divination involved. The task in question was not notably more subjective than any of millions of other perceptual tasks performed by humans every day. Mechanics must determine whether aircraft parts exhibit excessive wear. Doctors must determine whether patients appear healthy, whether children are developing normally, whether this blotch on Smith’s skin is sufficiently or insufficiently symmetrical, whether or not a bump near a pin-prick counts as a welt. In laboratories scientists must determine whether solutions have turned opaque, whether needles read 0.002 or 0.003, whether a specimen is appropriate for inclusion in a control group. All of these tasks require some degree of human judgment, but none of them is reasonably described as entirely (or excessively) “subjective.” Human life—and even science itself—is in large part a matter of human beings making judgments about the objective though often partially-occluded facts about an objective and partially fuzzy world. If determining whether a chad is hanging or dented is subjective, then everything—including science—is subjective. Furthermore, if these things are subjective, then the decision to program the machines to one level of sensitivity rather than another is subjective. When the going gets tough, the crafty go Postmodern—and Baker might as well have been wearing a black beret and quoting Derrida.

Things do not change appreciably when it is human intentions that are to be discerned. Every day we make countless judgments about the intentions of others. Turn signals indicate intentions to turn, upraised hands indicate intentions to ask questions or make comments, certain well-known actions indicate a desire to catch one’s attention. Some behaviors indicate an intention to do harm. Judges, police officers, military personnel, statesmen, and ordinary citizens make life and death decisions every day as a result of judgments about the intentions of others. Although sometimes difficult it is something we are quite good at. Primarily because almost all of those Homo Sapiens who weren’t good at it died off long ago.

To help my students think in situations like this, I often urge them to use the “life-or-death test." In this case, it would go a little something like this:

Suppose that somehow the fate of the Earth depended on correctly ascertaining the outcome of the Florida vote in 2000. Suppose, just to get the point clear in your head, that aliens had decided to blow up the Earth if we got the recount wrong. And suppose you were in charge of determining how to handle the situation. On the one hand, you have the experts informing you that the machines have a 1-2% inaccuracy rate, and you know that the margin of victory in this case is far, far below that threshold. You also know that humans are eminently capable of performing the relevant perceptual and judgmental tasks, and capable of doing them better than machines. You know that the task will not be easy, and that there will be some borderline cases—dents so small that no one will be able to judge whether it is or is not a vote. But you also know that most cases will not be like that at all. In most cases it will be perfectly clear who the voter intended to vote for, and in the unclear cases humans will more reliably produce right answers than machines will. In short, you know what the voting machine experts told us back in 2000—that humans are more reliable tabulators of punch-card ballots than are machines.

Now, with the fate of the Earth riding on your decision, would you decide to stick with the machine counts or recount by hand?

That’s what I thought.

And if democracy really mattered to the members of Bush’s 2000 campaign, that’s what they would have decided, too.

Another way to settle cases like this is by looking at “prior commitments.” In the heat of the moment, people’s judgments about what is fair and unfair are too often mangled by their desires. Our judgments in a cool hour, when we have nothing directly at stake, are often much more reliable. And, of course, Bush himself had signed into law a bill in Texas that required manual recounts in such cases, indicating that he himself acknowledged their superiority. The Bush camp responded to this by arguing that the case was different in Florida because no standards were established in the Florida law. That’s wrong, however. All of the standards employed in Florida recounts were reasonable standards, and all would produce more accurate counts than the machines produced, so the fact that the methods differed was irrelevant. Using different reasonable standards of recounting is no more unfair than using different reasonable types of voting machines, so long as all the methods in question are at least as accurate as machine counts.

So, did the Bush camp steal the election? I don’t know, and probably neither do you. Is it theft to take something that may or may not already belong to you? Suppose there is a valuable book, bought and sold back and forth between your ancestors and mine over the course of generations. Suppose we lose track of who actually owns the book, but that we have a box containing all bills of sale for the book over the years. Some of the papers are cryptic and difficult to read, but most are perfectly legible. It is clear that our only hope for determining the actual ownership of the book is to carefully reconstruct the book’s sales history. It may be yours, it may be mine, but we won’t really know until we read through all the papers. But driven by raw greed, one day I simply decide to take the book, ownership be damned. Suppose we later discover that the actual history of the sales is incomplete, and ownership cannot be conclusively determined.

Did I steal the book?

I’m not sure. But I am sure that I would, under those circumstances, have shown myself to be a thief.

And I’m sure that you shouldn’t trust me around your books.

Bush and his cohort revealed something significant and horrifying about themselves during the recount debacle of 2000--they showed that they were willing to seize power even with insufficient evidence that they deserved it. Subsequent actual counting of the ballots—something deemed by the Bush camp to be too costly, time-consuming, and unimportant to undertake before appointing a president—showed that Gore probably won. If we’re lucky, it was too close to call. If we’re not lucky, then we allowed an unelected band of thugs to seize power in the world’s greatest democracy.

We don’t know whether the Bush camp stole the election, but what we do know is that they clearly exhibited a willingness to do so. They expended all their energies on seizing power, and almost no energy to determine who had actually won. In fact, they actively worked to prevent recounts that would have told us who did win. Such people, I believe, are unfit to lead this country.

Conservatives complain when liberals bring up these past electoral shenanigans, but they are relevant to more recent events. Many people were surprised by the contempt shown by the Bush administration for allies and Americans who failed to support the invasion of Iraq. Their surprise came as a surprise to me, because the actions of the Bush team in 2000 had already exhibited the relevant characteristics so clearly. In both cases they jumped to a conclusion that they preferred based on inadequate evidence. In both cases they even distorted and sought to suppress evidence that contradicted their preferred conclusion. In both cases they were astonishingly dogmatic about their preferred conclusion, and, in essence, accused anyone who disagreed with them of being an idiot or a criminal. Iraq was, logically speaking, just a replay of the recount debacle of 2000.

In a way the disaster that has been the Bush administration might—but probably won’t—ultimately be a good thing for this country. Without it, Americans might have allowed themselves to believe that the recount of 2000 turned out alright. Although the race was so close that either Bush or Gore might reasonably have been declared the winner, that is not the point. The point is that America allowed itself to be bullied and railroaded into accepting a leader. That would be appalling even if that leader had turned out to be a good one. Unfortunately, even now the lesson seems not to have been driven home in a sufficiently hard way for about 45% of the population. Of those people, one can only wonder what on Earth Bush would have to do to demonstrate his unfitness for office.

These reflections are also relevant because we stand on the verge of another election debacle. Both sides are lawyered up and itching for a fight. Whatever good will between the parties that managed to survive the 2000 recount has subsequently been squandered by the Bush administration’s policy of pushing it’s agenda by hook or by crook, loyal opposition and allies and world opinion and facts and evidence and the “reality-based community” be damned.

As you have by now ascertained—or divined, as the Bush camp might put it—I will not be voting for George W. Bush this time, either.

But this time there is no doubt in my mind that I am making the right decision.


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