Time Machine

by John Holbo on August 14, 2004

It seems to be funny facts day here at CT (except it’s sad that Julia Child died, although 92 is not so sudden for someone so stuffed with butter and cream.) Anyway, via Colby Cosh, I found my way to this NY Times election 2000 Florida recount-o-matic web tool, allowing you to set different rules for ballot acceptability to see how it might have all gone differently.

Cosh writes of his experience in the time machine:

My hasty thought process – I was just taking the Times “web widget” for a spin – was that on optical ballots, only filled ovals, rather than “any marks indicating choice”, should qualify for counting. I figured that if you can’t follow a simple, visual set of voting instructions, you can’t really complain about disfranchisement. In cases where more than one person examined each ballot, I figured that unanimity was a reasonable standard to expect. And when it came to punch-card ballots I could allow holes with “chads detached at three corners” to serve as a signal of voting intention, but two corners seemed to be leaving the door open a little wide. So I, playing god, made my choices and hit “Show Results”.

By the best known guess, if the statewide Florida vote had been counted according to my reasonable-seeming criteria, the final result would have been:

George W. Bush: 2,915,247
Al Gore: 2,915,245
Bush margin of victory: 2

Not to be outdone, I lowered the bar, reasoning thusly: the point is not to immunize yourself against complaints of disenfranchizement. The point is to determine, best you can, who more people wanted to be President. (Yes, in the context of a hypothetical legal challenge this isn’t obviously the point. But as a rule for deciding elections it makes a certain sense. Just thought-experimentin’ here.) So I allowed ‘any marks indicating choice’ for optical, ‘at least two agree’ for independent observers, and ‘chads detached at one corner’. I couldn’t bring myself to lower myself into dimple territory. Result: Gore by 60 votes.

This might be fuel for unkind jokes – I do recall them – to the effect that Democrats are too dumb to punch their ballots properly. So I went back and reset the machine’s controls mercilessly. Disdaining Cosh’s tolerance of 3-corner detachment, I insisted on nothing less than the Full Punch Monty, along with actually colored in circles and complete unanimity on the part of recounters. Result: Gore by 134 votes.

What this obviously shows – as many Republicans know or at least suspect – is that the Democratic party consists of a morlock-like underclass, incapable of punching a simple ballot, and an eloi-like intellectual elite, whose fanatic, statist punctiliousness compels them to leave not a chad corner dangling on election day. Caught between the degenerate morlocks and hyper-evolved eloi is the ‘regular guy’, a Red Stater, who prefers beer to chardonnay, who has been known to leave the occasional chad danging by a single corner in his haste to get home to watch NASCAR, and whose hard-earned wages the eloi are trying to transfer to the morlocks.



Matt Weiner 08.14.04 at 5:51 pm

If Mr. Cosh wants following simple instructions to be a prerequisite for having your votes counted, he may have to throw out every single vote from Duval County. A sample ballot instructed voters to vote all pages; since the actual presidential ballot went to two pages, this would have guaranteed that your vote was invalidated. (A couple of minutes’ lazy googling hasn’t told me whether the actual ballot contained the “vote all pages” instruction.)


Ralph 08.14.04 at 6:55 pm

At the risk of angering many (most?) people, I conclude from this interesting analysis that the Florida result was so close as to be literally a toss-up: flipping a coin would have provided as good an answer as any other process. To me, that puts the Supreme Court decision in a different light. The Supremes did, in fact, eliminate the possibility of endless contention, which could have been quite troublesome and certainly just as divisive as what actually happened.

Yes, the court voted on partisan lines, and I found that extremely troubling. But a coin toss will never satisfy anyone except the winner.


bob mcmanus 08.14.04 at 7:28 pm

“The Supremes did, in fact, eliminate the possibility of endless contention”

I would have vastly preferred endless contention. There are actual political consequences of sending the election to Congress that might have been useful to Democrats, an example, Peter King (R-NY) casting the deciding vote.
There might have been deals made, and knowing Bush, promises broken.
Bush would have had less real power, and no honeymoon.

Anyway, it was the goddamn law. The 1880 Act was specifically designed to keep the courts out of Presidential elections, and contains words to that effect. SCOTUS absolutely sucks.


Sebastian Holsclaw 08.14.04 at 7:58 pm

The thing I find most interesting in retrospect is that if you run all the iterations available in the NYT widget, you find that the closer you get to the Republican vote-counting proposals, the more likely Gore is to win. The closer you get to the preferred (at the time) Democratic vote-counting proposals the more likely Bush is to win.

This suggests that neither party really understood which counting rules would help them. I contend that is a good thing, since it is harder for either side to cheat if they can’t figure out which rules would help them.


niq 08.14.04 at 8:08 pm

Am I the only person that found the different undervote [or spoiled ballot] rates the more disturbing?

In all of the counties that used “question ballots”, the undervote rate was higher than the statewide average. In all of these counties, the number of ballots spoiled for Gore was much higher than the number of ballots spoiled for Bush. If these counties had used ballots with a better design, the vote likely would not have been close.

This was the cause for the more important post-Florida lawsuit, claiming that counties with large poor and minority populations tended to have higher undervote rates, and the state had an obligation to repair the undervote rate.


the talking dog 08.14.04 at 8:34 pm

The politest thing one could say about the Supreme Court was that it didn’t change the ultimate result. IN the event of an insanely close tie, like this, the issue of who to certify for Florida’s electors fell to Congress, or to the governor of Florida. Both favored… the guy who became President.


Colby Cosh 08.14.04 at 8:59 pm

I want to emphasize that the criteria I chose were not meant to ever be defended; my visit was just an exercise in very quickly picking some set of criteria without possessing a set of result-driven conceptions about the standard. (How pleasant, though, to be linked from Crooked Timber.)


Kieran Healy 08.15.04 at 12:22 am

I want to emphasize that the criteria I chose were not meant to ever be defended

This lines up with the Supreme Court’s attitude.


Sebastian Holsclaw 08.15.04 at 12:39 am

It is also in line with the Florida Court’s opinion. They didn’t bother with statewide standards so they never had to defend them.


Ben 08.15.04 at 3:40 am

I think there was a bit of poetic justice to it, as upset as I was at the time with it: had Gore done what any narrowly defeated candidate should do — that is, call for a single full recount by hand in the whole state, instead of gaming it — he would now be President of the United States.

Karma’s a bitch. Mind you, I don’t know what that says about Jim Baker and his lot, who managed to convince a good chunk of people that recounts don’t work. (If they really do take that much more time, how on earth do we get the results on election day?)


Paul Rosenberg 08.15.04 at 4:01 am

One shouldn’t forget that this ballot-counting issue was only one part of the whole Florida dispute.

In addition to the tens of thousands of people illegally disenfranchised by being kicked off the voting rolls, there were also those whose votes were miscast or invalidated because of the Palm Beach butterfly ballot, and the military ballots, which were counted in a highly partisan manner (a lot of Gore votes were disallowed for dubious reasons).

In short, if the Supreme Court WAS going to get involved, there were plenty of other issues for it to address–all of which produced a pro-Bush bias. By (1) involving itself, (2) producing a decision which no one, so far, has been willing and able to defend (defending results is not defending the decision), and ignoring all these other issues, the Supreme Court took a case of egregious state-wide corruption of the vote and Federalized it.

Worst. Supreme Court. Decision. Ever=>

Worst. President. Ever.

That’s the only logic it ever had.


Ghost of a flea 08.15.04 at 4:14 am

Let us not forget the role of the equally biased Florida Supreme Court. And I think the coin toss idea could usefully be institutionalized, say if the vote falls within a specific margin of error. This would allow for much pageant and spectacle as the Congressional Coin Tosser (in tricorner hat) did the business of democracy. Either that or three rounds of rock/paper/scissors.


jholbo 08.15.04 at 9:13 am

As a meritocratic alternative to the coin-toss, a race: first candidate to correctly pronounce ‘nuclear’takes the prize.


Brett Bellmore 08.15.04 at 11:33 am

Paul, if we’re going to count the people illegally disenfranchised, I suppose we must also count the people illegally ENfranchised by failure to properly purge the rolls, as well. There were certainly plenty of those. As well as the ballot box stuffing that went on, the absentee ballots voted in the name of people who’d died or moved out of state…

The ugly truth is that the election was so close that there was scarcely a source of error that wouldn’t have thrown it one way or the other. We’ll never know who would have won Florida in an entirely honest election. The signal was below the noise.

Ben, it’s not that hand recounts take too long, it’s that Gore waited so long before requesting them, in an effort to preclude Bush having a chance to request them in counties where it would benefit HIM. And then the courts ate up a bunch of time on half-measures. There would have been plenty of time for a full manual recount over the entire state if it had been requested promptly.

I think the Supreme court decision was a good thing, if poorly reasoned. The Florida supreme court was re-writing election laws after the fact, and that had to be slapped down. Would have been a good civics lesson, though, to let the Florida legislature appoint the electors. Remind everyone that Presidents aren’t popularly elected… We might have gotten a constitutional amendment out of it!

Remember, though: Things were as screwed up everywhere in the country, from President to dog catcher. No state could have stood that scrutiny. A pity no real reforms came of the whole mess…


Adam Kotsko 08.15.04 at 3:47 pm

My theory re: lack of real reform — everyone wanted to forget the whole mess. Everyone wanted, as quickly as possible, to forget the unpleasant things that the entire controversy revealed about our electoral process. It seems to me that most of the governing and media elites in this country — including the ever-dwindling “liberal elite” — may have thought that having a shitty president would be a better bet than having a quasi-illegitimate president.


Brett Bellmore 08.16.04 at 1:45 am

MY theory regarding the lack of fixes: It’s a “bugs” vs “features” problem. What people who want honest elections see as bugs, incumbant politicians, who by definition got elected under the current system, see as features.


harry 08.16.04 at 4:13 pm

That’s interesting Sebastian. You might (or might not, since I’m going to tell you the pay-off) want to check out the introduction to Michael Dummett’s book Voting Procedures, in which he describes the Labour Party National Executive Committee deliberations in 1981 concerning the new electoral college which was going to elect the Deputy leader. There was a very fierce fight that year between the left-wing Tony Benn, and the right-wing Denis Healey, both of whom had supporters on the NEC. The questions was: whether abstentions should be counted into the or not. The right pushed for them to be counted into the percentages., but the left rejected discussion of the point on the grounds that it was an irrelevant detail. The outcome? The abstentions weren’t counted and Healey won by a whisker. Count the abstentions and Benn would have won by a whisker.


Matt Weiner 08.16.04 at 4:37 pm

This suggests that neither party really understood which counting rules would help them. I contend that is a good thing, since it is harder for either side to cheat if they can’t figure out which rules would help them.

Sebastian, I agree; that’s part of the reason that it’s so deeply unfortunate that the Supreme Court chose a rule whose outcome was certain to benefit the side that those five justices politically favored. It removed even the pretense of fairness from the outcome.


obeah 08.16.04 at 7:19 pm

The vote was effectively a dead heat. I think that that in order to avoid a situation in which the choice of counting methods determined who would become President, the Florida electors should have split 12 for Bush and 12 for Gore, with one abstention (or, if they aren’t allowed to abstain, one for someone else. I’d make a suggestion, but people would just throw things.) Instead of a coin toss, they could have just taken themselves out of the equation.


Jim Henley 08.16.04 at 8:32 pm

The Florida election was a statistical tie. Gore tried to game the system by cherry-picking issues and counties where a recount was statistically likely to help him. The State Supreme Court went along for the ride. Then the federal Supremes pulled a status quo ante out of their ass with nothing resembling a legitimate, principled basis.

Far better than the Repubs tossing over the federalist principles they pretend to hold and the Supreme Court writing a “just this once, and just coincidentally on behalf of our guy” embarrassment would have been to resort to the actual constitution. The Fla Supremes/Board of Elections certifies a pro-Gore slate; the Fla House sends the pro-Bush one they’d have favored and the US House decides which delegation to sit. You know, the way it’s supposed to freaking work.

Bush would still be President and Dems would still be outraged. But the target of their outrage would be different – the Republican House – and at least the target of their outrage would have been performing its constitutionally-mandated function as designed.


james 08.16.04 at 10:24 pm

SCOTUS ruled on the case twice. The first time was on the strictly constitutional basis of equal counting practices across all Florida counties. The Florida Supreme Court had set up a grossly unconstitutional system of using what ever counting process each district wanted. The second SCOTUS ruling was as much about the Florida Supreme Court ignoring the remand of the first ruling as it was about stopping the recount.


Adam Kotsko 08.17.04 at 5:14 am

The important thing to remember as we parse out the incredibly complicated details of what went on in 2000 is that it was resounding proof that our system works!

If we repeat that enough, I think we’re supposed to be able to start thinking about believing it.


Jay 08.17.04 at 5:52 pm

Adam, you remind me of something I’ve been wondering about. Following the Florida debacle, what we DIDN’T see was people taking to the streets with guns and bombs, or people ensconcing themselves in highly visible churches, or say maybe Disney World with an armed militia.

I’d really like to know why that is. Attributing it to some inherent virtue of the Europeans is bunk. Pointing to differences in religion is insufficient. How DID we manage to instill in our population such a universal sense of “give up the best for the sake of the good”?

It seems really important that we figure this out.


Matt Weiner 08.17.04 at 7:14 pm

Jay, I have one extremely overpessimistic suggestion–nobody on either side, and certainly not on the Gore side, thought at the time that what was at stake was worth physically fighting for. I reckon that even the “bourgeois riot” folks would have backed down had it come to a question of busting heads, or getting their heads busted.

As I say, I think that’s overpessimistic. Our basic respect for the rule of law had a lot to do with what was going on. But it’s also important to remember that most of the 2000 presidential campaign was predicated on the idea that there wasn’t that much difference between Gush and Bore.


Thomas 08.18.04 at 1:33 am

It seems to me that the US Supreme Court got it right in Bush v. Gore, and right in a predictable way. The question presented is, in a sense, what counts as an unreasonable interpretation of a state election statute?, and the split followed the conventional lines of cases involving statutory interpretation, with the swing justices, not bound by any interpretive theory, refusing to offering a reasoned judgment but carrying the day. Something we’ve all seen countless times.

Those who object that there is a constitutional scheme in place to handle such disputes seem to ignore the fact that Bush v. Gore left those processes undisturbed: Congress and the state of Florida could continue to wage the partisan war. Only the SCOFLA was barred from entering the fray.

Finally, regarding John’s post, it is important to remember that there was never a recount of all the ballots in Florida, only a recount of certain disputed ballots (tendentiously referred to in the Times as “uncounted” ballots). The numbers given still don’t tell us anything about what a recount by hand of every ballot would show.


Alaska Jack 08.18.04 at 1:48 am

Coming in kind of late, I have two points that I thought might be of interest.

1. Someone in this thread noted that the results were so close that any number of factors influenced the results, from voters who were disenfranchised to those who were improperly allowed to vote. I would just add that it wasn’t only in Florida — several other states had results that were in this margin of error as well.

Also, I just wanted to repeat something that stuck in my mind from the recount period. I was reading an account of someone who was either a recounter or observer. He or she observed, almost offhandedly, that there were *chad all over the floor* from the ballots. Simply the act of recounting altered the results, and no one will ever know exactly what the original vote was.

As far as I’m concerned, the moral of the whole sad story is:

1. Pen
2. Paper
3. Further assistance for those few who need it.

So the counting is a little slower. So what?

– Alaska Jack


Joshua W. Burton 08.18.04 at 1:32 pm

_I think there was a bit of poetic justice to it, as upset as I was at the time with it: had Gore done what any narrowly defeated candidate should do — that is, call for a single full recount by hand in the whole state, instead of gaming it — he would now be President of the United States._

_Ben, it’s not that hand recounts take too long, it’s that Gore waited so long before requesting them, in an effort to preclude Bush having a chance to request them in counties where it would benefit HIM. And then the courts ate up a bunch of time on half-measures. There would have been plenty of time for a full manual recount over the entire state if it had been requested promptly._

Here, in both its canonical forms, is the most infuriating howler to come out of the entire mess. In his very first public appearance after the election,


the vice-president made the following offer.

_I am also prepared, if Gov. Bush prefers, to include in this recount all the counties in the entire state of Florida. I would also be willing to abide by that result and agree not to take any legal action to challenge that result. If there are no further interruptions to the process, we believe the count can be completed within seven days of the time it starts._

It’s worth reading that speech in full, if only for a glimpse of the chance that was lost. Had that proposed meeting between the candidates taken place, several million of us would have withdrawn all objection to a Bush outcome, however corruptly contrived.

Because, you see, a President Bush who _just once_ admitted that he had to work with his opponents to further the interests of his country could have…what? Kept Jeffords? Focused on Osama? Read a security briefing? Built a coalition? We’ll never know, but I will go to my grave with a strong opinion.

The Hayes-Tilden compromise _ended_ a rift in the national polity.


Thomas 08.18.04 at 2:21 pm

Joshua–It’s true that Gore made that offer, but he made the offer after the expiration of the statutory period for requesting a recount. It’s not clear to me how it would have been given any legal effect. The original claim stands: If Gore had wanted a full recount, he could have requested it. He did not.


somecallmetim 08.19.04 at 3:07 pm

How ’bout this. You read this instructions, you fill the ballot out properly, and you don’t blame anybody else if your troglodyte brain screws up that ubersimple task. That goes for both sides. A little personal responsibility here, folks.

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