10 January 2006

Battlefield Florida

Research in Review Magazine, Florida State Univ.
A Chat with Lance deHaven-Smith

Al Gore really did beat George W. Bush in 2000. Six years on, this is still a problem?

by Julian Pecquet

After spending 36 days in the fall of 2000 in thrall to politicians, pundits and the press, Americans probably thought they knew all about the hanging, dangling and pregnant chads that helped decide the presidential election.

Turns out, those chads only distracted attention from much more grievous breakdowns during the 2000 election.

At least that’s what longtime Florida political observer Lance deHaven-Smith believes. His most recent book, The Battle for Florida (University Press of Florida, 2005), looks at the twilight of democracy in Ancient Greece and draws disturbing parallels with the institutions in Florida and the nation during the 2000 election and up until today.

[...] For this book (his ninth), deHaven-Smith compiled legal documents, statistical analyses and public records, and flavored them with his interpretation of what it all means.

[...] RinR: One of the most interesting points you make in the book is that the focus on undervotes (ballots containing no vote for president)—the hanging, dimpled and otherwise pregnant chads—was misplaced. Instead, you explain that a study by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, which looked at all the ballots that were initially rejected on election night 2000, revealed a surprise: most of these uncounted votes were in fact discarded because they were over-votes, instances of two votes for president on one ballot. What do you think the NORC study tells us about the election?

LdHS: It’s an embarrassing outcome for George Bush because it showed that Gore had gotten more votes. Everybody had thought that the chads were where all the bad ballots were, but it turned out that the ones that were the most decisive were write-in ballots where people would check Gore and write Gore in, and the machine kicked those out. There were 175,000 votes overall that were so-called “spoiled ballots.” About two-thirds of the spoiled ballots were over-votes; many or most of them would have been write-in over-votes, where people had punched and written in a candidate’s name. And nobody looked at this, not even the Florida Supreme Court in the last decision it made requiring a statewide recount. Nobody had thought about it except Judge Terry Lewis, who was overseeing the statewide recount when it was halted by the U.S. Supreme Court. The write-in over-votes have really not gotten much attention. Those votes are not ambiguous. When you see Gore picked and then Gore written in, there’s not a question in your mind who this person was voting for. When you go through those, they’re unambiguous: Bush got some of those votes, but they were overwhelmingly for Gore. For example, in an analysis of the 2.7 million votes that had been cast in Florida’s eight largest counties, The Washington Post found that Gore’s name was punched on 46,000 of the over-vote ballots it, while Bush’s name was marked on only 17,000.

[...] RinR: Throughout The Battle for Florida, you claim the law was bent out of shape to satisfy partisan goals. Does that mean you think some of the actions by Florida’s elected officials merit a legal investigation?

LdHS: Yes, absolutely. To me, I think what this election teaches us is, first of all, we need to strengthen the penalties for election tampering and we need to return to an earlier understanding of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” We’ve gotten to the point today where we’re looking for smoking guns all the time. And the truth is that these officials take an oath of office to uphold the constitution, and that oath is a broad requirement that they enforce the laws with good intentions.

But there wasn’t even a cursory investigation of the events, which points to another legal requirement…that we develop some kind of mechanism to investigate the government. We have the government investigating itself, and inevitably it’s unlikely you’re going to get much investigation.


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