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On Butterfly Wings | The Nation

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On Butterfly Wings

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This is going to be yet one more article on the never-ending recount-a-rama in Florida. But first a flashback to a pre-Election Day campaign moment: It's October. George W. Bush is barnstorming through Wisconsin. At his side is Republican Governor Tommy Thompson. In an auditorium in La Crosse, the Gov is firing up an enthusiastic crowd of several thousand. Riffing on a major Republican talking point, he pokes fun at Al Gore for being a whatever-it-takes truth-stretcher. Laughing, Thompson declares that someone ought to send Gore a copy of All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, Robert Fulghum's platitudinous bestseller that details fourteen simple rules to live by ("share everything," "don't hit people," "clean up your own mess," etc.). The audience howls at the line and then roars when Bush hits the stage.

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David Corn
David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. Until 2007, he was Washington editor of The Nation. He has written...

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The sixth rule in Fulghum's roster is "don't take things that aren't yours." And that should be kept in mind when the ugly Florida election is considered. But not necessarily because Gore would have won a recount. Let's look at that before returning to Fulghum.

The latest round in the recount-wrestle was declared a victory by the Bushies, for the Miami Herald, after conducting a statewide review of 64,248 undervotes (ballots that did not register a presidential preference when zipped through vote-counting machines), concluded that Bush "almost certainly" would have won had the US Supreme Court permitted the recount to go forward. The newspaper's headline blared, "Review Shows Ballots Say Bush." Vice President Dick Cheney, for one, embraced the finding, saying, "I think it's been resolved.... We won Election Night. We won the recounts. We won the manual recounts.... We ought to get on with our business."

The Herald's report, though, is not going to be the last word in a dispute that probably will never yield a last word. The newspaper found Bush would have placed first by 1,665 votes had the reviewers used a liberal standard that tallied dimpled, pinpricked and hanging chads--a standard the Gore camp had advocated. Under the most restrictive standard--which the GOP had fancied--Gore would have ended up vanquishing Bush by three votes--that is, by 0.00005 percent. Even as the headline favored Bush, data in the story was used by Democratic partisans to argue their case. For instance, the paper reported that if county canvassing boards throughout the state had followed a 1998 state Supreme Court ruling--which said that these boards must examine for voter intent those ballots that cannot be read by a scanner--"Gore might have won...by 393 votes," assuming these counters had employed the most inclusive standard. (The difference between the Bush-win-by-1,665 and the Gore-win-by-393 findings arises because the latter included ballot reviews in counties not covered by the state Supreme Court recount order, which had exempted counties that had already conducted full or partial recounts.) But traditionally, counties have not followed that 1998 ruling, which arguably would require election workers in some counties to vet tens of thousands of ballots after each election--a process that would take weeks or months.

The Herald's review--run by a public accounting firm and mounted jointly with USA Today--demonstrated that in a contest so large (5.9 million votes) and so close, the battle over a standard will determine the result. This has caused some Bush backers to say smugly, see, we told you that you could not have an accurate recount. What they ignore is that all vote-counting occurs under one standard or another. Punch-card voting machines can kick out up to 4 percent of ballots as unreadable, while optical-scanners typically read more than 99 percent of the ballots. That's a built-in standard that can affect a race--especially if the different machines are disproportionately dispersed.

Still, one fair reaction to the debate over the Florida review standards is a shrug of the shoulder and a "who really knows?" A major media consortium--which includes the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, AP and others--is expected to complete its own review of the Sunshine State ballots next month. But it's unlikely the reports of the various participants will provide closure. The battle of Florida can be expected to end with whimpers, not bangs.

Absent in all the back-and-forth is a quite simple point: Butterfly ballots trump chads. The question "What would have happened with a recount?" may be ultimately unanswerable. But the question "Which candidate was supported by more Florida voters?" can have a more definitive answer. One need not look beyond Palm Beach County. As the Palm Beach Post reported a month ago, the confusing butterfly ballot cost Gore 6,600 votes.This is an amount much higher than any of the margins in the different scenarios presented by the Miami Herald. The Post survey identified 5,330 ballots--many from Democratic strongholds--in which a voter punched chads for Gore and Pat Buchanan. Another 2,908 voters pushed out chads for Gore and Socialist candidate David McReynolds. And a good many of the 3,424 votes cast for Buchanan were probably meant for Gore. Bush lost a few votes in this confusion, too: 1,631 voters knocked out his chad and the one for Buchanan. It is beyond reasonable contention that had the poorly designed butterfly ballot not flummoxed Palm Beach residents, Bush would not have won.

But what to do with this information? During the postelection trauma, the Gore campaign could not demand that these ballots--crafted by a Democratic official--be part of a recount. Postelection lawsuits filed by local lawyers challenging the butterfly ballot--and calling for a revote--fizzled. There was no legal recourse. What was broke could not fixed.

Which brings us back to Robert Fulghum and rule number six, for the election in Florida was not solely a legal matter. Bush had an option in addition to sending in the lawyers to fight to the death (which is what Gore did as well). He could have instructed former Secretary of State James Baker to fact-find and determine if Bush was the choice of a majority of Florida's voter--if indeed the victory was his to take. Of course, this is not how politicians behave. But it is worth noting that none of the character-cops and virtue-czars of the right ever suggested--as far as I can tell--that this would have been the correct and ethical course. Do not take what is not yours, even if it can be taken.

Had the situation been reversed, wouldn't one or two conservative commentators--if not oodles more--have called upon Gore to make a personal sacrifice and renounce his claim to the presidency in order to advance the cause of integrity and serve the will of the people? To put public interest ahead of ambition? And if Gore, in this reverse scenario, declined to instruct his electors to vote for the other guy, the real winner, wouldn't there have been a demand from Republicans and conservatives that Gore admit he was an accidental President and act accordingly? It is not difficult to imagine such Op-Ed indignation and cable-show pontifications.

No surprise--Tommy Thompson (now Secretary of Health and Human Services), Bill Bennett and other GOPers did not publicly call on Bush to acknowledge that he reached the White House because of a fluke beyond redress. In what is a politically smart--if anti-Fulghumian--move, Bush has proceeded as if he triumphed in a landslide. And the tussle over chads throws up enough dust (and conflicting numbers) to keep the picture unclear. This works to Bush's advantage, for the butterfly foulup, which had more impact on the final outcome and which truly undermines Bush's standing (if not quite his legitimacy), has gotten lost in the chad chase. Bush and his lieutenants need not concede that his presidency is as flimsy as the wings of a lepidopteran, for few in presidential politics abide by Fulghum's second rule: "play fair."

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