Recount, HBO’s dramatic recreation of events surrounding Florida’s 2000 presidential voting fiasco which landed George W. Bush in the White House, debuts on May 25. Early returns look good, at least with regard to the film’s entertainment value, which should come as no surprise given the network’s long track record of high-quality original programming. The consensus of critics who’ve screened Recount — a group that doesn’t include me, by the way — seems to be that, despite its token gestures at evenhandedness, the film makes clear that supporters of Al Gore were more right than wrong while supporters of Bush were more wrong than right.
That fact, too, should come as no surprise. Setting aside Hollywood’s notorious political demographics, the proposition that justice was done is never as compelling as the proposition that justice was denied. Outrage sells. “He that goeth about to persuade a multitude that they are not so well governed as they ought to be shall never want attentive and favorable hearers,” the English theologian Richard Hooker wrote in 1594. “Whereas on the other side, if we maintain things that are established, we have . . . to strive with a number of heavy prejudices deeply rooted in the hearts of men who think that herein we serve the time, and speak in favor of the present state, because thereby we either hold or seek preferment.” In other words, rail against the status quo and you’re David challenging Goliath; defend the status quo and you’re a suck-up.
Recount, therefore, is certain to fire up that substantial portion of the electorate that still believes the 2000 presidential election was stolen. But before we get our collective undies in a bunch, here are a few points to keep in mind.
1) On the matter of chads. The following instructions were provided at every polling location in Florida where punch-card ballots were used: “After voting, check your ballot card to be sure your voting selections are clearly and cleanly punched and there are no chips left hanging on the back of the card.” If you failed to follow these instructions, your selections might not be tallied by the machines that counted the ballots. At first glance, the system seems apolitical; the machines don’t care whose votes they count and don’t count. But the upshot was that minimal literacy was required to ensure you cast a successful vote. Or, to put it another way, the machines would disallow functional illiterates’ ballots more often than they would reject those of other folks. Since functional illiterates make up a reliable Democratic constituency, the appearance of a conspiracy to disenfranchise Gore voters was destined to emerge.
However, the entire hand-recount process, in which election officials sorted through paper ballots and attempted to decipher voters’ intentions based on “hanging chads” and “pregnant chads,” amounted to an effort to include would-be voters who screwed up. The Democratic mantra “let every vote count” thus translated into “let every screw-up count.”
2) On the matter of black voter suppression: During his 2004 presidential campaign, Democratic candidate John Kerry repeatedly asserted that “a million” black voters had been disenfranchised by Republican chicanery during the 2000 election. To which the proper response remains: All right, Senator, name one. Just one. One black citizen who was registered to vote, eligible to vote, but was prevented from voting by Republicans anywhere in the United States during the 2000 presidential election.
The reality, again, is that not a single black voter has ever come forward with a credible claim. Not one. Which takes us back to Florida. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights scoured the state during a six-month investigation in 2001 and produced a report titled “Voting Irregularities in Florida During the 2000 Presidential Election.” Despite the report’s inflammatory tone and hysterical conclusions, when you look inside for actual evidence of black-voter suppression, as civil-rights attorney Peter Kirsanow has noted, what you come up with is one witness who claimed that the sight of an empty patrol car outside a polling place was “unusual.” (The menacing vehicle, however, did not stop the witness or anyone else from casting a ballot.) Another witness complained about a police motor-vehicle checkpoint, insinuating it had been set up for the purpose of intimidation — to prevent him, and perhaps thousands of other black citizens, from casting votes. Except the checkpoint turned out to be two miles from the nearest polling place, and on a different road. During the 90 minutes the checkpoint was in operation, cops issued 16 citations for faulty vehicular equipment. Twelve went to white people. There is no evidence whatsoever that a single person, black or white, was kept from voting by the checkpoint’s operations.
Nor, as is often alleged, did the “felon purge list” — the list of Floridians ineligible to vote due to felony convictions — systematically target black voters. The list was prepared to prevent voter fraud; to be sure, it was not perfectly accurate. But whites were actually twice as likely as blacks to wind up incorrectly on the list.
3) On the matter of justice being done: Many people still feel that the United States Supreme Court put “their man” in the White House by deciding in favor of Bush in the case of Bush v. Gore — which halted the hand recounts ordered by the Florida supreme court. In effect, Bush was selected rather than elected. For example, Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz, who yells a lot, has asserted that “the decision in the Florida election case may be ranked as the single most corrupt decision in Supreme Court history, because it is the only one that I know of where the majority justices decided as they did because of the personal identity and political affiliation of the litigants. This was cheating, and a violation of the judicial oath.”
On the other hand, Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia, who doesn’t yell a lot, and who helped shape the majority opinion in the case, contends the decision was altogether justified: “The principal issue in the case, whether the scheme that the Florida Supreme Court had put together violated the federal Constitution, that wasn’t even close. The vote was seven to two.” Scalia also points out, “It was Al Gore who made it a judicial question. It was he who brought it into the Florida courts. [The Supreme Court] didn’t go looking for trouble. It was he who said, ‘I want this to be decided by the courts.’ What are we supposed to say? ‘Oh, it’s not important enough.’?”
It would be interesting to watch Dershowitz and Scalia debate Bush v. Gore. But another point, a more general point, needs to be made here. There’s a difference between having an opinion and having an informed opinion. Dershowitz and Scalia have informed opinions. By contrast, if you’re spouting off on the merits of Bush v. Gore and you don’t recognize the names, say, Marbury or Madison, you have an opinion on the case in the same sense that Washoe the Chimp has an opinion on a Beethoven symphony: He might sway back and forth with pleasure or fling his refuse in frustration, but he has no possibility of grasping the underlying issues.
Finally, it’s worth noting that if the Supreme Court had not intervened and halted the hand recounts, Bush still would have won the Florida election – according to a comprehensive review of ballots conducted after the fact by the National Opinion Research Center at the behest of (among others) the Associated Press, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and CNN. The only way Gore could have won was by counting “overvotes” — spoiled ballots containing the names of more than one candidate per office — which were so clearly voter screw-ups that neither candidate ever requested that such ballots be counted.
It will be interesting to see if HBO’s Recount acknowledges that inconvenient truth as the end credits start to roll.
– Mark Goldblatt writes from New York.