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Let The Sunshine In
The same old myths live on about Florida, Nov. 2000.


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Headlines this weekend recited the old line “Dems accuse Bush of stealing the 2000 election.” Former U.S. Representative Carrie Meek received a wildly enthusiastic response from delegates to the Florida Democratic convention with calls that “We should be ready for revenge!” Retired General Wesley Clark told delegates he fought for democracy and free elections in Vietnam and Europe only to see “the taking” of the presidency by Republicans in 2000. Senator John Edwards said, “We had more votes; we won!” Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts said: “None of us are going to forget.” More vaguely, Senator Joe Lieberman claimed that Bush “stretched the truth” to get his way in 2000. Of course, Terry McAuliffe was beating the same old drum. They should all get over it.

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The stolen election supposedly incorporated many wrongs, but foremost was discrimination against Democratic African-American voters: Faulty voting machines were said to have thrown out their votes at higher rates. Also included are claims that the voters’ intent wasn’t properly divined, that Republicans on the Supreme Court felt compelled to covertly snatch the election, and that African-Americans were intimidated into not voting or were erroneously placed on the ineligible list at higher rates than other racial groups.

These charges have been rebutted before, but with so much misinformation and people’s short memories simply accepting the charges, many risk believing that they are true. There has also been new research–of which most people may not be aware–which helps replace myth with reality.

1. THE MYTH OF THE FLAWED VOTING MACHINES & DEMOCRATIC DISENFRANCHISEMENT

Suppose spoiled or non-voted ballots really did indicate disenfranchisement, rather than voter preferences. Then, according to the precinct-level vote data compiled by USA Today and other newspapers, the group most victimized in the Florida voting was African-American Republicans, and by a dramatic margin, too.

Earlier this year I published an article in the Journal of Legal Studies analyzing the USA Today data, and it shows that African-American Republicans who voted were 54 to 66 times more likely than the average African American to cast a non-voted ballot (either by not marking that race or voting for too many candidates). To put it another way: For every two additional black Republicans in the average precinct, there was one additional non-voted ballot. By comparison, it took an additional 125 African Americans (of any party affiliation) in the average precinct to produce the same result.

Some readers may be surprised that black Republicans even exist in Florida, but, in fact, there are 22,270 such registered voters–or about one for every 20 registered black Democrats. This is a large number when you consider that the election in the state was decided by fewer than 1,000 votes. Since these Republicans were more than 50 times more likely to suffer non-voted ballots than other African Americans, the reasonable conclusion is that George W. Bush was penalized more by the losses of African-American votes than Al Gore.

Democrats have also claimed that low-income voters suffered non-voted ballots disproportionately. Yet, the data decisively reject this conclusion. For example, the poorest voters, those in households making less than $15,000 a year, had non-voted ballots at less than one-fifteenth the rate of voters in families making over $500,000.

It is difficult to believe that wealthy people were more confused by the ballot than poor people. Perhaps the rich or black Republicans simply did not like the choices for president and so did not vote on that part of the ballot. Perhaps there was tampering, but it is difficult to see how it could have been carried out and covered up. We may never know, but, clearly, the figures show that income and race were only one-third as important in explaining non-voted ballots as the methods and machines used in voting. For example, setting up the names in a straight line appears to produce many fewer problems than listing names on different pages or in separate columns.

2. THE MYTH THAT AFRICAN AMERICANS WERE INCORRECTLY PLACED ON THE CONVICTED-FELONS LIST AT A HIGHER RATE THAN OTHER GROUPS

The evidence on convicted felons comes from the U.S. Civil Rights Commission’s Majority Report, which states: “The chance of being placed on this list [the exclusion list] in error is greater if the voter is African-American.” The evidence they provide indicates that African-Americans had a greater share of successful appeals. However, since African-Americans also constituted an even greater share of the list to begin with, whites were actually the most likely to be erroneously on the list (a 9.9-percent error rate for whites versus only a 5.1-percent error rate for blacks). The rate for Hispanics (8.7 percent) is also higher than for blacks. The Commission’s own table thus proves the opposite of what they claim. A greater percentage of whites and Hispanics who were placed on the disqualifying list were originally placed there in error.

In any case, this evidence has nothing to do with whether people were in the end improperly prevented from voting, and there are no data presented on that point. The Majority Report’s evidence only examines those who successfully appealed and says nothing about how many of those who didn’t appeal could have successfully done so.

3. THE MYTH THAT GORE WOULD HAVE WON IF RECOUNT HAD ONLY BEEN ALLOWED
There were two news consortiums conducting massive recounts of Florida’s ballots. One group was headed by USA Today and the Miami Herald. The other one was headed by eight newsgroups including the Washington Post, New York Times, L.A. Times, Chicago Tribune, the Associated Press, and CNN. Surprisingly, the two groups came to very similar conclusions. To quote from the USA Today group’s findings (May 11, 2001) on different recounts:

Who would have won if Al Gore had gotten the manual counts he requested in four counties? Answer: George W. Bush.

Who would have won if the U.S. Supreme Court had not stopped the hand recount of undervotes, which are ballots that registered no machine-readable vote for president? Answer: Bush, under three of four standards.

Who would have won if all disputed ballots–including those rejected by machines because they had more than one vote for president–had been recounted by hand? Answer: Bush, under the two most widely used standards; Gore, under the two least used.

Of course, Florida law provided no mechanism to ask for a statewide recount a la the last option, only county-by-county recounts. And of course neither Gore’s campaign nor the Florida Supreme Court ever asked for such a recount.

4. DON’T FORGET THE EARLY MEDIA CALL

Florida polls were open until 8 P.M. on election night. The problem was that Florida’s ten heavily Republican western-panhandle counties are on Central, not Eastern, time. When polls closed at 8 P.M. EST in most of the state, the western-panhandle polling places were still open for another hour. Yet, at 8 Eastern, all the networks (ABC, CBS, CNN, FOX, MSNBC, and NBC) incorrectly announced many times over the next hour that the polls were closed in the entire state. CBS national news made 18 direct statements that the polls had closed.

Polling conducted after the election indicates that the media had an impact on voter behavior, and that the perception of Democratic wins discouraged Republican voters. Democratic strategist Bob Beckel concluded Mr. Bush suffered a net loss of up to 8,000 votes in the panhandle after Florida was called early for Gore. Another survey of western-panhandle voters conducted by John McLaughlin & Associates, a Republican polling company, immediately after the election estimated that the early call cost Bush approximately 10,000 votes.

Using voting data for presidential elections from 1976 to 2000, my own own empirical estimates that attempted to control for a variety of factors affecting turnout imply that Bush received as many as 7,500 to 10,000 fewer votes than he would normally have expected. Little change appears to have occurred in the rate that non-Republicans voted.

Terry McAuliffe clearly stated his strategy “to use the anger and resentment that will come out of that 2000 election, put it in a positive way to energize the Democratic base.” Democrats have used the notion that Bush is an illegitimate president to justify everything from their harsh campaign rhetoric to their filibusters against his judicial appointments.

More could be said about these myths, but most of them hardly merit discussion. Unfortunately, as Terry McAuliffe implies, these falsehoods will continue to be trumpeted frequently over the next year; thankfully, a few facts can help dispel them.

–John Lott is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. His data on the Florida 2000 election may be found at www.johnrlott.com.



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