Vox Populi
A Letter to the Editor

Conducting Recounts in "All the Closer States"
Friday, January 26, 2001

Mr. Berg-Andersson-

I have a brief comment to make concerning your Tuesday, January 23rd commentary, "To the Spoils goes the Victor"...

In the very last paragraph you mention conducting recounts in "all the closer states..." If we were election of the President solely by virtue of the Popular Vote and we were also looking at a close election (on the "basis of that earlier margin"), then why just conduct recounts in the "closer states"?

It would seem that, in this most recent election, Bush might have called for a complete recount of Texas, because it would likely have yielded him additional votes! Gore, meanwhile, might have called for a complete recount of New York, or California, because they would likely yield HIM additional votes!

In a very close election, it would seem that a complete recount of the entire country might even be in order!!! In this respect, the Electoral College system (in either its current form or the Districted Electoral Vote system you spoke of) serves a very important purpose. It focuses attention into smaller areas of dispute, rather than the entire country in general.

Daryle Hendricksen

Mr. Berg-Andersson responds:

Mr. Hendricksen has well stated at least one of the objections to scrapping the Electoral College completely and replacing it with Direct Election of the President solely by virtue of the Popular Vote. However, what he has suggested in his "vox Populi" above- while, I suppose, theoretically possible- is, in my opinion, highly unlikely-- even in a close election nationwide.

Recounts are somewhat expensive for a county or other sub-state jurisdiction (township, precinct, etc.) to conduct and even more expensive to fight for in the courts in those States where the laws would not have made it as easy as Florida had for a losing candidate to ask for and receive a recount (let alone fight in the courts to have an unfavorable recount itself re-recounted as the Gore team had done: just imagine what the total "billable hours" were re: ALL the attorneys on BOTH sides in the most recent Florida election debacle!). Therefore, I think the sheer expense of- as well as the logistical problems involved in- a virtually nationwide recount (and, perhaps, even a "Florida-like" nationwide re-recount!) along the lines Mr. Hendricksen has suggested would alone force the contending candidates in such a close election to, more or less, "pick their spots" when it came to recounting the votes in all or parts of a fair number of states.

My gut tells me that the two candidates involved in an election such as that we have just gone through (I think this election- although, given the present Electoral College system, the Popular Vote per se was not an issue re: actually electing a President- shows that even a 500,000-plus vote margin is still "close" in a nationwide election) would tend to stick to recounts in close states; I don't honestly think one would normally see wholesale recounts across the board. There would also be the political "image" factor (for example, what would it look like if a candidate in such a close election were to seek recounts in a state where he has already been shown to have won by, say, 58 to 41 percent of the vote?) which, I think, would put pressure on the contending candidates to only seek recounts in "viable" states and parts of states- those areas where the margin would be extremely close.

Unless we have a situation that produces a margin such as that of 1880 (where, in the end, James Garfield's Popular Vote margin over Winfield Scott Hancock was a mere 1,898 votes nationwide [the narrowest margin for a Popular Vote winner who also won the Electoral Vote in history!- by the way, this was NOT the certified margin sent to Congress along with the Electoral Votes to be tabulated in Joint Session on 9 February 1881... Garfield's certified nationwide Popular Vote margin was 7,018- which only goes to show that it has long been a tradition in our Nation's history for votes to be recounted after the fact!!]- but, of course, then- as now- the nationwide Popular Vote is really nothing more than a "fun fact" because, then as now, the Electoral Vote does the actual electing), I really don't think we will see such wholesale recounts that Mr. Hendricksen has suggested might regularly occur were the Direct Election system to be adopted-- but, obviously, this is only one man's opinion (and I have been very careful to not suggest or support [or, for that matter oppose] any of the options I outlined in my 23 January Commentary nor have I publicly supported or opposed doing nothing. My purpose in that Commentary was, hopefully, to stimulate healthy discussion re: reforming (or not reforming) the Electoral College system as it presently exists.

I will here add a few words about the most recent presidential election in Florida and its place in just such a discussion. We must be careful not to give Election 2000- even though it clearly is the type of result that tends to stimulate such discussion- more than its due weight when applying it as an example to the overall concept of Electoral College reform. The Florida situation was something of an aberration- that is, it was not your everyday run-of-the-mill recount situation which, I think, would be the type on which Mr. Hendricksen was opining in his "vox Populi" above:

The Florida election debacle was fueled, at least in part, by the former Vice President's firm and honest belief that he had really "won" the Sunshine State outright (even absent all the hand recounting and legal maneuvering that went on throughout November and on into December). If it had not been for the so-called "butterfly ballot controversy" in Palm Beach County- in which it is highly likely (though it can never be proven for sure) that some thousands of votes, certainly enough to overtake the hundreds-of-votes margin by which President Bush was certified to have won the state, which would have otherwise gone to Al Gore went to another candidate in parts of that county, I don't think we would have witnessed much of what we did see during the Florida controversy.

Al Gore could do nothing about the "butterfly ballot" or its effect on the election outcome per se (and a pursuit of that particular legal option- at least as an option for the Gore campaign itself- was dispensed with pretty early on) but he could- given the closeness of the margin in Florida- try to find other avenues which would allow his campaign to right what they- again, rightly or wrongly- saw as the "wrong result". Obviously, the Bush campaign had to counter that- from their perspective- the "wrong result" would have been to allow the Gore campaign's wishes to prevail and we were "off to the races".

But the Palm Beach County ballot issue (along with his own "I will fight for you" mantra which was one of the themes of his Fall campaign) did force Al Gore- like a Major League Baseball team hanging onto hopes of a playoff berth, even when the Magic Number is already down to "2" with more than a week to go in the Regular Season- to keep fighting until he was mathematically eliminated. At one point during the Florida proceedings late last year, I outlined- in the "red zone" at the top of the home page (where TheGreenPapers.com would post- in red type [hence the name]- detailed information about the whole Florida election debacle, day by day as it transpired)- why Al Gore could only win the Presidency "on the ground" in the Sunshine State and, moreover, why he could NOT win it once the controversy got beyond the State and up to the Federal level (I was, at the time, thinking here of Congress, of course, in its role as the ultimate "umpire" of Presidential Elections; like most observers, I was surprised the U.S. Supreme Court took up the issue); I would not be too surprised to someday find that the Gore campaign had already made the same calculation I had made when "The Green Papers" posted that "red zone" note- that, if the former Vice President could not get a Popular Vote from Florida in his favor "out there" before Congress got involved (through the certification of dueling slates of Electors or the failure of any certification forcing the Florida Legislature to act, etc.), he had- in fact- lost that which he himself surely thought he had won.

[Reference: Red Zone November 10, 2000]
[Red Zone November 24, 2000]

Whatever the "spin" put on it at the time, and irrespective of his own personal and political reasoning which led up to the moment, Al Gore ultimately conceded Election 2000 to George W. Bush this past 13 December because he had, indeed, finally been mathematically eliminated. Gore could only produce a recount- even a statewide recount such as that ordered by the Florida Supreme Court- in his favor under the existing Florida election statutes (as subsequently interpreted by the State's highest court) which allowed each county canvassing board to decide on its own how to go about recounting and what standards to use. Once the U.S. Supreme Court had handed down its decision that the lack of a statewide standard for such recounting violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the Federal Constitution, there is no way that- even had the statewide recount ordered by the Florida Supreme Court gone forth with new guidelines which adhered to the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling- the former Vice President could possibly get a recount which would produce a result favorable to him: that is, Gore had, thus, failed to even win the election "on the ground"! The gun had sounded: Game, Set and Match to Bush.

Historians, as I've already said in my response to the "vox Populi" entitled "President-SElect George W. Bush", will someday take a cold, objective look at the Florida election results in 2000 that is impossible to be taken today, in early 2001. Even though Gore and Bush partisans- along with the mainstream media and think tanks and watchdog groups (both conservative and liberal)- will, I am sure, continue to seek- on their own- to find out "who really won Florida", the fact is that none of them will EVER find out who REALLY "won". None of them, no matter how objective (and certainly those with an agenda of "proving" Gore "won" or- taking the opposite tack- "justifying" Bush's certified victory will not be so objective in the first place), will be able- or, in the case of the more partisan, even willing- to truly and fairly apply standards the U.S. Supreme Court ordered this past December but refused to themselves set and all the number-crunching that results from these early, private efforts to parse the election results out of the Sunshine State will only end up as a mathematical database of unbridled opinion rather than an example of principled accounting.

All of what I have just written re: Florida in Election 2000 is by way of warning that we cannot take what happened in that State and assume that, in any close election under a Direct Election system, we would- almost by definition- see much the same thing on a larger, more terrible, scale. The odd coincidences that combined to give us the Florida election debacle- the "butterfly ballot controversy" in one Florida county, the closeness of the result in Florida as a whole, the fact that the nationwide Electoral Vote was so close that this one State would, in the end, determine the Presidency, a set of woefully out-of-date election statutes more typical of the Deep South "Jim Crow" State Florida once had been than the up-to-date, dynamic State Florida has long since become- were, in the main, a "once in a lifetime" combination of, at best, unusual circumstances. One cannot, therefore, treat Florida in the 2000 Presidential Election as being an exercise in normal recounting procedure.

Yet it is true that the compilation of election statistics across the Nation as a whole is still woefully inadequate (as Election 2000 proved) and that this, in and of itself, is currently an argument against adoption of a Direct Election system. Keep in mind that- as I already mentioned above- History shows that Garfield squeaked out a Popular Vote margin of 1,898: yet there are documents in the National Archives which- in aggregate- show that Garfield's margin was 7,018 (not that it matters absent Direct Election of the President). Also keep in mind that- despite all the advances in voting and vote-counting technology since- we have not progressed all that much in our processing of Election Returns beyond 1880!

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