Impossible to count votes?

  • William Raspberry / Washington Post columnist
  • Thursday, December 14, 2000 9:00pm
  • Opinion


ou cannot walk across a room, and you cannot count Florida’s uncounted presidential ballots.

There is an elegant proof of the first proposition: To walk across the room, you must first negotiate half the distance across the room. That done, you must traverse half the remaining distance, then half the distance that remains after that.

The remaining distances to be halved will grow smaller and smaller, but there will always be some tiny half-distance yet to go. You can never walk across the room.

Proof of the second proposition is trickier. You cannot count Florida’s uncounted ballots because in order for a Florida court to order them counted, plaintiffs must first prove that counting them would change the outcome of the election; that is, you can’t count them unless you already know what the count will be.

But that only gets you halfway there. So: You cannot count them because you cannot guarantee that the counters in all of Florida’s counties will use the same standard for deciding which machine-rejected ballots constitute legal votes. You cannot guarantee it because the only statewide official capable of ordering such a standard is the secretary of state, who was also campaign co-chair for the candidate already leading and who therefore does not want a recount in the first place.

Negotiate that half-distance and you still can’t count the votes because the U.S. Supreme Court overrules the Florida Supreme Court and says you have to stop counting. You can’t resume counting because the beginning of the count was flawed, so you have to start all over again. You can’t start over again because time has run out.

Zeno would love it.

The truth is, you can cross the room and you can count the votes (or at any rate you could have counted them if the politicians and the justices hadn’t gotten in the way). It really is no particular trick to look at a ballot in its entirety to see what a voter intended to do. The talk about dimpled, hanging, swinging and pregnant chads is designed to make the easy seem ludicrous and impossible. If you and I saw a ballot with clear punch-throughs for, say, congressman, county commissioner and sheriff but only a dimple for president, we’d not count the dimple. If we saw a ballot that had dimples in the appropriate places for most of the offices, including president and vice president, we’d count it, certain that we understood the voter’s intent. And if we couldn’t decide one way or another, we would put the darned thing to one side.

By the way, I don’t blame the Bush people for trying to obscure the matter — or the Gore people for pressing the counter claim. It’s what campaigns do.

Nor do I find any reason to try to punish Bush by making his prospective presidency needlessly difficult, there being nothing whatever to suggest that he manipulated either ballots or justices.

My problem is with the U.S. Supreme Court majority which, it seems to this non-lawyer, traversed at least half the distance between philosophy and partisanship. It’s one thing to have conservatives on the high court; quite another to have Republicans there.

That may be too harsh. Maybe by the time you read this someone will have explained to me (1) why the court had no choice but to take the Bush appeal in the first place, (2) why it is unconstitutional to have different standards regarding chads but perfectly permissible to have voting machines of widely differing quality and accuracy, and (3) why the court majority evinced no interest in finding a way to count—or even to look at — the thousands of ballots rejected by machines whose inaccuracy has been attested to by an important patent holder.

By the way, will the justices who halted the Florida recount, at least in part to avoid the embarrassment of having Bush shown to be trailing in an election they intended to hand him, also find a way to thwart Florida’s "sunshine" statute and the federal Freedom of Information Act lest journalists and other independent researchers show that the wrong man was sworn in as president?

Note: In my column last week, I referred to the "late" John W. Gardner. I am delighted to report that the former secretary of health, education and welfare, founder of Common Cause and personal hero of mine, is very much alive.

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