Hand counts create room for error, abuse

  • Charles Krauthammer / Washington Post columnist
  • Saturday, November 18, 2000 9:00pm
  • Opinion

WASHINGTON — There is a reason that machines have been chosen by Florida and so many other states to count ballots. The reason is not only speed and efficiency, but fairness. Of course machines make mistakes, but the mistakes are distributed randomly. There is no premeditation, no search for advantage.

Undoubtedly, there were many presidential ballots that were double-punched, under-punched, or otherwise spoiled in Florida. But machines read such errors with scrupulous impartiality. The same cannot be said of hand counting. Hand counting is arbitrary, open to manipulation and abuse.

Mechanical ballots are designed to be read by machines, not humans. When humans try, the results, as we have seen in Palm Beach, range from the arbitrary to the bizarre. Hence the comic contortions of the ballot examiners holding up cards to the light, trying to divine the intent of voter. Hence the spectacle of Gore supporters going to court to get a judge to declare that "dimpled chads" — a slight indentation in the piece of paper one is supposed to punch through, even slighter than the now legendary "pregnant chad" — must be counted as a vote.

Second, a manual recount subjects computer cards, literally, to manipulation. Under this method, the presidency of United States hangs by a thread, the thread holding the dangling chad. Any waving, shuffling, rubbing or other movement can easily cut the thread, dislodge the chad, and produce a "vote."

This would be true even if those judging the ballots were perfectly neutral. They are not. The counting by hand is in fact counting by Democrats: The counties now seeking to conduct these recounts — Palm Beach and Broward — are controlled by Democrats. The decision regarding the legality of every newfound Gore vote is made by a committee that is either entirely or majority Democratic.

These counties, moreover, are two of the most heavily Democratic in the state. They went for Gore with majorities larger than Lyndon Johnson won over Barry Goldwater in 1964 — and that was the biggest landslide of our time. Broward Democrats chose three sample precincts to decide whether to recount the entire county: two of the test districts voted 20 to 1 for Gore; the third, 50 to 1. Brezhnev never did that well.

In such heavily Democratic districts, there is no way a recount will not produce more net votes for Gore. You simply expand or narrow your criteria for voter "intent" — and produce whatever number you need to win.

What is the fairest way to determine the winner in a state like Florida? The fairest is a statewide machine count — and recount. Why? Because the errors balance out.

What about a statewide manual recount, an option offered by Gore in his televised Nov. 15 gambit? It has two disabling liabilities. First, it vastly multiplies the opportunity for fraud and bias. Thousands of people in thousands of precincts handling millions of cards — cards that can be manipulated and altered with ridiculous ease. There just aren’t enough watchdogs to watch all the partisans.

Second, a statewide manual recount would take forever. For weeks, it would prolong the political instability, deprive the next administration of the necessary time to prepare the transition to power, and perhaps even breach constitutional deadlines (such as Dec. 18, the day the Electoral College meets).

What is the least fair procedure one could possibly devise for determining the winner? The one Gore is pursuing relentlessly in the Florida courts: The selective culling of Democratic votes by Democratic arbiters from heavily Democratic districts.

You might argue that all this is irrelevant because Florida law allows for manual recounts under certain circumstances. Yes, but Florida law has several mandates. One such mandate is that all counts, machine or otherwise, "shall" have been completed by Nov. 14.

In the Clinton era, such clear injunctions are meaningless. It all depends on what "shall" shall mean. Gore’s lawyers demanded relief from this requirement by seizing upon the generally recognized exception for hurricanes — pointedly displaying their inability to distinguish an act of God from an act of Gore, the imperatives of blind nature from the demands of naked ambition.

The Bush team has unwisely allowed the debate over the hand counting in Palm Beach and Broward to be framed as closure vs. fairness: "when will it end?" vs. "a full and fair count." Purely on grounds of fairness, however, the case is open and shut: The particular hand counts the Democrats are demanding are the farthest thing from full and fair. They are partial and selective and their results are predetermined. They amount to the most flagrant attempt at electoral theft since the dead of Cook County rose up in 1960 to give Illinois to John Kennedy.

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