Setting themselves apart is a big job for most Democratic presidential hopefuls.
Korea has the bomb, but not to worry.
It's not a crisis. No, we needn't hurry
To get inspections back. Why try to spot
The weapons they already say they've got?
Let's take back the Democratic Party and do all we can to beat Bush in 2004.
When Donna Brazile learned in late May that the Justice Department might
sue three Florida counties over voting rights violations that
disfranchised minority citizens in the 2000 presidential election, the
woman who managed Al Gore's presidential campaign called her sister in
Florida's Seminole County. In one of the milder examples of the
harassment suffered by thousands of African-American and Latino voters
in the disputed election, Brazile's sister had been forced to produce
three forms of identification--instead of the one required under Florida
law--before she could cast her ballot.
Informed that the Feds were riding to the rescue eighteen months after
the fact, Brazile's sister asked, "What took 'em so long?" When the
Justice Department finishes its tepid intervention, the question likely
to be asked is, Why did they bother?
When it comes to missing signs of serious trouble, failing to respond to
clear threats and then botching the cleanup of the mess, the Justice
Department's response to the 2000 election crisis has been at least as
inept as the much-criticized terrorist-tracking performance of the FBI
and the CIA. Although it is charged with enforcing Voting Rights Act
protections, Justice was nowhere to be found when its presence could
have made a difference--not just for Florida but for a nation that had
its presidential election settled by a 5-to-4 decision of the US Supreme
Immediately after the November 7, 2000, election, minority voters who
had never committed crimes complained of having had their names removed
from voting rolls in a purge of "ex-felons," of being denied translation
services required by law, of seriously flawed ballots, of polling places
that lacked adequate resources and competent personnel, and of
harassment by poll workers and law-enforcement officials [see Gregory
Palast, "Florida's 'Disappeared Voters,'" February 5, 2001, and John
Lantigua, "How the GOP Gamed the System in Florida," April 30, 2001].
But after newspaper analyses uncovered evidence of disproportional
disfranchisement of minority voters, and even after a US Commission on
Civil Rights review condemned Florida's Governor, Jeb Bush, and its
Secretary of State, Katherine Harris, for running an election marked by
"injustice, ineptitude and inefficiency," another year passed before
Assistant Attorney General Ralph Boyd told the Senate Judiciary
Committee in May that the civil rights division was preparing to act.
"Act" is a generous characterization. Eleven thousand election-related
complaints have been whittled down to five potential lawsuits--targeting
three Florida counties, along with St. Louis and Nashville. The Florida
suits focus on the failure of Miami-Dade, Orange and Osceola county
officials to provide Spanish- and Creole-language assistance to voters.
Issues of accessibility for the disabled and flawed registration
procedures are also likely to be addressed. And, encouragingly, Boyd
told the Judiciary Committee that his department would examine the
purging of eligible voters from election rolls in a process overseen by
But don't expect to see Harris--now a Congressional candidate--in court
anytime soon. Boyd wants to settle his suits before they are filed,
through negotiations with local officials. That will bring limited
reform to three of Florida's sixty-seven counties and perhaps a bit more
restraint on the part of the Republican-controlled Secretary of State's
office. There is no real evidence, however, that John Ashcroft's Justice
Department is going to call anyone in Florida--least of all the
President's brother or his political allies--to account for the
widespread disfranchisement of minority voters.
Justice Department attorneys continue to limit the scope of an
investigation that should be examining the collapse of voting rights
protections in all Florida counties, from Palm Beach in the south to
Duval in the north and Gadsden in the west--where as many as one in
eight ballots cast by minority voters was discarded. In addition, Jeb
Bush and the Florida legislature continue to reject needed reforms and
to stall the allocation of sufficient funds to bring voting machinery in
predominantly minority precincts up to par with equipment in
predominantly white precincts. And the US House and Senate remain
deadlocked over legislation that would promote and fund reforms in other
states--like Illinois, which had a higher rate of ballot spoilage than
Florida. Until the Justice Department and state and federal legislators
get serious about making real reforms, the 2002 and 2004 elections won't
be any more fair or functional than the flawed election of 2000.
The essential mystery of the 2000 election has always been this: How in
the world did George W. Bush ever get close enough to invite the
Republican-appointed majority on the Supreme Court to give him his
Of course, he couldn't have done it all by himself. Al Gore ran away
from one of the most successful economic records of any Administration
this century and could not seem to articulate a single compelling reason
that he should be President. Bush was also mightily aided by Ralph
Nader, whose spoiler candidacy commanded just enough support to swing
battleground states for the Republicans while failing to come even
remotely close to the 5 percent, matching-funds goal that was his
professed inspiration. But the biggest piece of the puzzle is still
Bush. He may have "grown" in office, but the fact is he had some of the
skimpiest qualifications for the job of almost any successful candidate
in our history, while Gore's were among the best. Moreover, his
political views were well to the right of most voters on almost
everything, while Gore's were well within the national consensus. By any
conventional calculation, Bush should have lost in a landslide.
The obvious answer to the paradox is that Bush sold his personality, not
his politics. But how? Are people just stupid? Don't they realize that
it doesn't matter if one candidate is a likable cutup and the other one
a superior stiff when it comes to stuff like global warming, a patients'
bills of rights, Social Security, the right to choose, etc.? Well,
that's one answer. But a more compelling one is that the so-called
liberal media, contrary to its nonsensical reputation for favoring
Democrats, failed to inform the public of the two candidates' political
and ideological differences, and the implications those differences held
for the nation's future.
The release of two different kinds of campaign documents--Ambling
Into History, a book by New York Times reporter Frank Bruni,
and Journeys With George, a film by former NBC News producer
Alexandra Pelosi--shed considerable light on just how the media managed
to spend millions upon millions covering the candidates while reporting
next to nothing of value to voters. Ambling is a memoir of a
love-struck reporter. The journalist charged with covering the campaign
for the newspaper that sets the agenda for most of the elite media
focuses with laserlike intensity on every nod, wink, smile and
profession of alleged "love" that comes his way from the candidate. But
we hear barely a word about the candidate's pollution- and
fat-cat-friendly policies as governor of Texas or his lies and
dissimulations when it came to environmental protection, affirmative
action, issues of corporate responsibility, healthcare policy and the
like. If you want to know the exact number of seconds that George and
Laura Bush danced at every one of their nine Inaugural Balls, then the
intrepid Mr. Bruni is your man. If you have any interest in what Bush
might have been doing at his desk the following morning, well, where did
you get the silly idea that a New York Times reporter should
concern himself with boring stuff like that?
The willingness of the Times bigfoot to treat the election as the
equivalent of a junior high popularity contest signaled to the rest of
the media that contentless coverage would be the order of the day. The
net result, as Pelosi shows us in her fascinating but nauseating
documentary--to be broadcast on HBO in November--is a press corps that
follows its campaign masters like a litter of newborn puppies. They wait
open-mouthed for Karl Rove or Karen Hughes to drop a tender morsel of
warmed-over baloney into their mouths, wagging their tails in
appreciation after every feeding.
The clowning frat boy who plays the Republican presidential candidate in
the Pelosi movie does turn out to be a genuinely congenial fellow. If
you've been wondering why it is that everybody seems to like this
guy--and how he has managed to forge so many lifelong bonds with people
irrespective of his apparent doofus-like qualities--then this movie will
provide a painless seventy-six-minute education. The filmmaker--the
daughter of House Democratic whip Nancy Pelosi--hates Bush's politics
but likes him personally, and so can we. She tells audiences that
Journeys is a documentary about process and that the candidate
himself is unimportant. But that's nonsense. Bush is a star. If Pelosi
had had the misfortune to be assigned to Al Gore's press plane, this
movie would have sucked.
But like Ambling, Journeys is more valuable for what it
shows than what it tells. Over and over we hear the reporters criticize
themselves for the emptiness of their coverage as they express a kind of
wearied contempt for the snowmobile rides and other pseudoevents that
substitute for substance. But over and over again, they submit without
apparent protest. They regurgitate the campaign's baloney sandwiches and
watered-down Kool-Aid--without even bothering to convince themselves
that it's really steak and champagne. In between feedings, they ask the
Man for his autograph, laugh at his jokes and seek, without much
success, to justify the effects of their collective lobotomy to Pelosi's
Unlike Bruni, Pelosi demonstrates considerable professional
self-awareness (which is why she felt compelled to quit her job and
leave the field entirely after the campaign). Early on, she gives us
the Financial Times's Richard Wolffe speaking excitedly about
covering "the greatest story in the world...big issues, big stakes; it's
a big game, but it's important." A little later he admits, "Most of our
time is spent doing really stupid things, in stupid places with stupid
people." If you want your mystery summed up in a single sentence, it
would be hard to outdo Wolffe: "The Gore press corps is about how they
didn't like Gore, didn't trust him.... Over here, we were writing only
about the trivial stuff because he charmed the pants off us."
But Bush himself puts it best, just before kissing Pelosi in pursuit of
her (meaningless) vote in the California primary: "If I lose," he
playfully smirks, "you're out of work, baby. You're off the plane."
In Gore Vidal's novel of post-World War I Washington, Hollywood, the
toughest ticket in town is a pass to the Senate debate on the League of
Five Supreme Court Justices are criminals in the truest sense of the word.
The ascendency of George W. Bush to the presidency exposes stark dissatisfaction in the United States.
Why the hell isn't Al Gore--instead of me--doing this?
It's 11:30 in the morning, the third day of the new year, and that's what I am thinking as I sit in a bland conference room on the eighteenth floor of the Stephen P. Clark Government Center in downtown Miami. I am examining the infamous Miami-Dade ballots, the "undervote" punch cards that did not register a presidential preference when processed by tabulation machines on November 7. There were about 10,500 of these ballots (1.6 percent of the votes recorded in Miami-Dade) and up to 60,000 undervotes throughout the state. I've been at it--staring at one ballot at a time--for about two hours. The thrill is gone. The eyestrain has begun.
Only a few people are engaged in this history-making though drudgery-ridden exercise. Six organizations are paying the county $10 an hour for the privilege of reviewing the ballots. Those bothering are an accountant-reporter team from the Miami Herald (which is examining Florida undervotes in all but four small counties), a reporter from the Palm Beach Post, officials from the state Republican Party, a reporter from Inside Edition, several accountants retained by Larry Klayman's Judicial Watch (a conservative outfit that has filed dozens of lawsuits against the Clinton Administration) and yours truly. No Democratic Party officials are participating, and none of the media biggies have shown. A week later, the Wall Street Journal, the Associated Press, the New York Times, the Washington Post and others--rather than mount their own reviews--would form a cost-sharing consortium to examine the state's undervotes and overvotes. (The latter are ballots that were recorded bearing more than one vote in the presidential race; the state Supreme Court recount order did not extend to these ballots.)
There is a whimper-not-a-bang feel to the occasion. We sit at individual tables, and temps hold up the ballots. We are not allowed to touch the cards. We gaze at them, searching for dimples, bumps, bulges, punctures, jagged holes, pen marks, pinpricks, rips and hanging, swinging or dislodged chads. And we can judge the ballots entirely as we choose. As Miami-Dade officials repeatedly note, this is not a "recount"; it is an "inspection."
During three days of review, I will examine and consider the meanings of 3,409 ballots from precincts--including African-American neighborhoods that backed Gore and Cuban-American areas that went for Bush--that split the Gore/Bush vote 55 percent to 45 percent in Gore's favor. (The full countywide tally divided 53.2 to 46.8 percent Gore's way.) And the numbers? How many votes did Gore pick up? Would he have won Florida--and taken the nation--had the Miami-Dade recount not been thwarted by, first, the county elections canvassing board and, then, five Republican-appointed members of the US Supreme Court? Well, not so fast. I'll get to the totals. But here's a teaser: The results of this painstaking manual review contradicted the melodramatic spin of both the Bush camp and the Gore gang. The fundamental assertions pushed by each side--for the Bushies, it was that manual recounts are arbitrary acts of folly; for the Gore crowd, it was that if you count them, he will win--were undermined by these castaway ballots.
I and the other journalists arrived at the government center hoping to gather hard-and-fast answers to the murky questions floating in the wake of the messy presidential election. The Republican officials are present to keep an eye on the reporters. They are collecting ammunition, in case anyone in the media declares that Gore nets the 538 votes he needed to win the state. And Klayman is grabbing television face-time. As the review begins, he raises a fuss for the TV news cameras. He has asked that his accountants be allowed to sit at tables and review punch cards alongside the other participants. He claims he wants to speed up the process. It seems he is more interested in monitoring the inspections of others. David Leahy, the county elections supervisor, rejected the request, and Klayman huffs that the county "must have something to hide." His accusations are curious. Leahy, who holds a nonpartisan position, is a member of the three-person canvassing board that shut down the Miami-Dade recount the day before Thanksgiving, after khaki-clad Republican aides flown in from Capitol Hill mounted a thuggish protest on the nineteenth floor. The board's move enraged Democrats. And during the postelection period, Leahy consistently opposed conducting a manual review. (He says he did not believe a Miami-Dade recount would produce enough votes to alter the statewide results.) So why is Klayman giving him a difficult time? Moments later, Klayman informs me the county is worried because "there are irregularities here." He maintains that I will find such suspicious-looking ballots as punch cards with "chads scotch-taped back in."
As I proceed with the inspection, I do not encounter fraudulent-looking ballots, but I do see cards difficult to explain. This is what I am looking at: a seven-and-three-eighths by three-and-a-quarter inch card of heavy paper stock with twelve vertical rows of numbered boxes running from 1 to 312. Voters were instructed to insert this card into the plastic sleeve of the Votomatic machine. Then they turned through a ballot book that was attached to the device and that listed the various contests and candidates. Every time a page was flipped a different portion of the card was aligned beneath holes in the sleeve. To make their selections, voters stuck a sharp stylus into a specific hole--designated by arrows in the ballot book--to punch out the square-shaped chad of the appropriate box on the card. The first row on the card corresponded to the presidential race, and the candidates were assigned even-number slots. If a citizen voted for Bush, he or she broke the chad in box number 4. For Gore, it was box number 6. For libertarian Harry Browne, it was box number 8. And so on. Then the ballots were tallied by machines that counted the holes in the cards.
At my table Ruth Smith, a 76-year-old retired school aide from Queens, lifts each card. She tells me her son-in-law-the-attorney represents Mark Penn, Bill Clinton's pollster, and her grandson also works for Penn. (If Klayman or the Republicans find out that a woman this close to Clinton's most important adviser is handling the ballots--oh my!) The first eight ballots contain no marks on the presidential row. Then I spot several cards with the chad in the 7 box punched out. "What could this mean?" I ask Ivy Korman, the elections department official supervising the public inspection. "Don't ask us," she says. "We have no idea." Immediately I spot other clearly punched 7s and, soon after, a bunch of 5s. These boxes do not correspond to any selection in the ballot book. (More on this mystery later.) And there are many ballots that have no vote on the first row but are filled with well-defined holes elsewhere. Are these from voters who decided not to stab for a presidential candidate but who participated in down-ballot races? Many ballots contain not a scratch, hole, dent or bump. Did people take the trouble to go to the polling place and then not vote in any contest? The lines at voting sites were long, and some citizens left before reaching the Votomatics. Under the rules, their pristine cards were collected and placed with ballots that had been punched. Other ballots are more baffling: those with pinpricks across the portion of the card that does not match any contest in the ballot book. Some with a clear punch-out at 9, 11 or 13--or all three. Cards with punch-outs forming patterns--such as a straight line across the ballot--that are not in sync with actual races. Not everyone followed instructions. Are these willful political statements? Artistic expressions? Acts of ignorance? Or system-caused errors?
Within minutes I come across the ballots that drew me to this conference room. Here's a 6 that is plainly broken. The chad remains in place, but there is a hole along one side of it. How could this not have been a vote for Gore? Chads are sturdy beasts. They do not break on their own accord. Spend a moment with a ballot card and you will see that the Republicans prevaricated during the recount-a-rama when they claimed that ballots are fragile and handling corrupts them. As Leahy--no friend to the Democrats--says, "You can run a ballot through a reader 100 times and you'll never get any chads inadvertently punched out. The ballot won't disintegrate on the basis of normal handling." The hole on this ballot had to have been placed there. Intent is clear. And Florida law--and the statutes in many other states--says intent is what counts. I judge it an unrecorded Gore vote.
But a few ballots later, I am peering at a card with a slight indentation at box 6. No hole. No penetration. The perforation has held fast. What to do? It doesn't look like a manufacturing error. Did the voter--as some GOP spinners speculated--only consider voting for Gore and then, struck by remorse, withdraw the stylus before executing the final thrust? Unlikely, but possible. Then I spot a ballot with a sharp puncture mark in the chad for box 4, but the chad did not detach and no light shines through. Standards, I need standards.
It is not until I examine a couple of hundred ballots that I can construct guidelines. Regarding the 4s and 6s, I divide them into three categories. The first is for when the chad is absent. Why hadn't these cards been counted as votes? Perhaps the reading machines made a mistake or a hanging chad dropped after the card was tabulated. Also in this category, I place easy-to-recognize holes--puncture marks above the chad, openings that are partially blocked by swinging chads. The second category is reserved for marks that definitely seem a product of an effort to punch the card--deep indentations, punctures that allow a pinhole of light to pass, pushed-back chads that are perforated at spots. A fair-minded person looking at these cards would have to admit deliberate action was responsible for the disturbances. I also toss into this category my favorite anomaly: revolving-door chads. These are cards in which the chad completely turned around but remained tightly in place. The dot is now on the back side of the ballot, which likely means that a push of the stylus point spun the chad, as if it were on an axle. As for category three, it is for ballots with a small but discernible blunt or sharp bulge on the chad--a slightly pregnant chad. These marks are debatable. I record these votes, but I would not include them in a count.
As I continue, I find that my standards are not in accord with the rules adopted by the canvassing board during its aborted manual recount, which scrutinized the undervotes from 140 of the county's 614 precincts. (That review resulted in a net gain of 157 votes for Gore, but the precincts examined were heavily Democratic.) The evaluations of that recount were written on the back of the punch cards, and I see many ballots counted as votes for Bush or Gore that would not pass muster under my standards. On a few of these ballots, the barest bulge--do I see it or am I imagining it?--caused the board to award it to a candidate. (Of course, the lawyers of the other candidate challenged the determination.) These close calls are not irregularities; they are judgments. But the point is obvious: A hand recount should proceed under tight rather than loose standards. Especially in Miami--which has a recent history of vote fraud. During a break, a local reporter regales the out-of-towners with basic facts of Miami-Dade: "We account for 90 percent of the immigration fraud in this country. Twenty percent of our economy is underground. Twenty percent of our water is stolen, through meter bypasses. This is the way we do things here." Several feet from the entrance to the conference room is a sign, copies of which are posted by the Commission on Ethics and Public Trust throughout the government center, that reads, We Care About You! If You Have Information About Fraud, Waste, Corruption in Our Community, We Want to Know. Call Us.
By the end of Day Three, with my eyes screaming, I realize that clear answers will not be forthcoming. Republicans were correct to the extent that an attempt to evaluate certain punch cards does place a reviewer in the position of mind reader. But they were wrong in dismissing the value and legitimacy of hand recounts. It would not be difficult to create strict guidelines for a manual review. Slap each ballot on a light table, see if a beam passes through whatever mark is there. Count any ballot with a partially dislodged chad. Skip the subtle bumps and the maybe-it's-something impressions. And a manual recount of the undervotes need not have taken forever. The Klayman accountants, working at two tables, finished their review of the Miami-Dade ballots in less than three days (and Klayman did not immediately announce any findings). A hand review in Miami-Dade and other counties throughout the state--not only the four counties where the Gore team requested recounts--could have led to a more accurate tally without trampling on anyone's right to due process and equal protection.
Would such a recount have rewritten the outcome? Maybe not. After sifting through a third of the Miami-Dade undervote--a large-enough sample on which to reach conclusions while avoiding eye damage--I discover that 59 percent of the ballots contain no marks for President. Adding up the ballots in categories one and two, I unearth 119 votes for Gore and 114 for Bush. A measly gain for Gore. If category-three votes are included--and I wouldn't advise that--Gore's pickup increases by twelve. (After reviewing 4,000 of the Miami-Dade undervotes, the reporter from the Palm Beach Post discerned a modest boost for Bush.) Extrapolate these figures to the rest of the county, and Gore falls short of erasing Bush's statewide lead.
These numbers say nothing about other counties--where various news organizations have been and will be studying undervote and overvote ballots. And there's another nettlesome matter to consider: those 5s and 7s. In my sampling, 7s beat 5s 389 to 214. It seems reasonable to assume that most 5s were meant to be votes for Bush and most 7s for Gore, for there appear to be only two possible explanations for all these missing-but-unassigned chads. Either voters mistakenly placed the punch cards on top of the sleeve in the Votomatic (doing so lined up chad 5 with the Bush arrow in the ballot book and chad 7 with the Gore arrow) and then punched away, or there was a mechanical problem with the voting machines that caused hundreds of cards to misalign within the devices. Analyzing data from the county, Anthony Salvanto, a faculty fellow at the University of California, Irvine, found 1,012 7s among the Miami-Dade undervotes and 696 5s. Leahy denies that machine error--as opposed to voter error--could have produced these results, but Salvanto identified hundreds of undervote ballots where a citizen consistently punched unassigned holes one spot below those of Democratic candidates--as if the voter had attempted to vote a straight party line and had been undone by the machine. Add the 5s and 7s into the picture, and Gore bags enough votes to put the statewide numbers into question. But what judge would have ordered the inclusion of these votes?
My own review does not produce an unambiguous shift in the Bush/Gore count. Othere media recounts may well do so. But it indicates that accurate hand reviews could have been conducted--and that they had the potential to address, if not resolve, some of the doubt that shrouded the election. When the US Supreme Court halted the Florida recounts, a combative Justice Antonin Scalia wrote, "The counting of votes that are of questionable legality does in my view threaten irreparable harm to [Bush], and to the country, by casting a cloud upon what he claims to be the legitimacy of his election." That is, the American public had to be protected from information. The undervote ballots--though uncounted in the official tally--do speak, and they tell a story: of an election probably decided in part by voting-technology problems, and of election results that cannot be considered to represent definitively the will of the people who voted. These punch cards, which Scalia, Bush and even some time-to-move-on Democrats do not want to dwell upon, ought to cast a long and dark cloud.
If the absence of soldiers seizing cable networks is the ultimate standard of meaningful democratic empowerment, we're not doing half bad.