Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Counting (almost) every vote

RECOUNT, WHICH premiered last week on HBO, provides an entertaining account of the behind-the-scenes fight over the 2000 Florida election results.

Unfortunately, even though the movie exposes a number of the problems in the Florida election, it presents such a narrow view of the events that, in the end, the Bush team appears to have simply outmaneuvered Gore rather than stolen the election outright through a concerted effort of racism and fraud.

The Florida election crisis--as depicted in Recount--began as simply a too-close-to-call outcome on election night, resulting in a mandatory vote recount. It became clear, however, that there were a number of irregularities that tainted the vote itself. In one county, a "butterfly ballot," in which candidate's names were lined up on two sides of the ballot, resulted in many elderly Jews mistakenly voting for anti-Semite Pat Buchanan, instead of Al Gore.

But even where voters clearly chose the candidate they wanted, many worn-down voting machines--often in lower-income communities--failed to count the "hanging" and "dimpled" chads, or incompletely punched holes, on the ballot. In some places, selecting Gore and then writing in Gore on the same ballot was considered a spoiled ballot, that was rejected by the voting machine.

HBO's film on the Florida election fiasco understates the crimes committed so the Bush family could take back the White HouseHBO's film on the Florida election fiasco understates the crimes committed so the Bush family could take back the White House

Eventually, we are shown that thousands of voters were denied the right to vote at all, as the administration of Gov. Jeb Bush removed the names of supposed felons from the voter rolls, even if they committed a felony in another state or simply shared the name of somebody who had. These people--the majority of whom were Black and tended to vote Democratic--were simply turned away at the polls.

When Kevin Spacey's character discovers this, his team is shocked, and there is a stunned silence. Those votes can't be cast again--"All we can do is make sure this doesn't happen again in 2002," says one staffer. They then continue to go about the business of making sure that the recount is carried out.

And here lies the problem with Recount. At this point, most people would stop and say, "Dear God, how could this happen in a democracy?" That was certainly the response of many people who watched the events play out.

The tactics used in Florida to suppress voter turnout were not only successful (for Bush), they were criminal--exposing the undemocratic and even racist nature of elections in the U.S.

Not only were names scrubbed from the rolls, but police set up roadblocks in Black neighborhoods to slow down traffic to polling places and intimidate people, an action not mentioned in the film.

In short, there was a concerted campaign from well before the election on the part of Jeb Bush's administration in Florida to assure that this crucial swing state would be awarded to his brother. Whether more people in his state wanted Gore to win was simply a minor inconvenience, easily overcome by altering the results--that is, stealing the election.

The racist nature of this effort is occasionally seen in the movie, but not as an overall strategy of disenfranchising the Black vote in order to assure a Bush victory. The entire recount effort, as problematic as it was, simply sought to cover Jeb Bush's tracks and assure the theft was successful. Failing this, the Republican-led Florida legislature was fully prepared to hand the state to Bush, regardless of the recount.

It is hard to believe, watching Recount, that such a systematic campaign could have been carried out. Most of the problems are seen as a series of unrelated irregularities, made difficult to overcome by the intransigence of the Bush team.

James Baker, the head of the Bush effort to stop the recount, is portrayed as a tough fighter determined to win, but otherwise, a pretty decent guy--not an election-stealer.

Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, who was responsible for managing the recount and also happened to be the chair of the Bush for President campaign in Florida, is presented as such a buffoon that it's hard to see collusion in her actions rather than just self-serving incompetence.

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FOR ALL of Spacey's demands that "every vote should be counted," there is surprisingly little interest in the most indisputable fact of the election--Gore won over 500,000 more votes than Bush nationwide.

That Bush could still take the election is a result of the slavery-era Electoral College system still used in U.S. elections. This system was meant to assure that ordinary voters did not actually choose the president, and that Southern slave states would dominate in the federal government.

Gore's victory in the popular vote--though not the undemocratic nature of the Electoral College--is mentioned only once in passing in the film, simply as justification for why a thorough recount in Florida should occur.

Unsurprisingly for people who lived through these events--although maybe more surprising for those only familiar with them through the movie--a wave of protests occurred throughout the country, not over chads and court appeals, but over the civil rights issues raised by the election.

Many of these were small, although they were much more significant in Florida where people had experienced disenfranchisement firsthand, a reminder of what they and their parents had lived through under Jim Crow.

Protesters in Recount are occasionally seen outside courthouses and state government offices, but the only time they are discussed is near the beginning of the film, when Secretary of State and Gore supporter Warren Christopher states that Jesse Jackson should be asked to stop leading protests, so as not to hurt their chances in court.

The Gore strategy wasn't concerned with exposing the dark side of American elections, but asking the courts for recounts in just the right number of counties to assure a victory.

Had Gore actually taken up the civil rights issues, he might have been able to better expose the racist election theft that was underway and build pressure for a more thorough recount. Instead, his focus on appearing respectable simply allowed the Bush team to brush them aside.

Ironically, Gore's recount strategy would have failed to gain him enough votes to win Florida, although a full recount of all the uncounted votes in all of the counties--that is, counting all the votes--would have won Gore the election, according to a study by the New York Times and other media outlets.

This is never revealed, which isn't surprising, as the articles that described this study claimed the study proved that Bush won Florida!

This evidence that our real-life protagonists really were fighting the good fight would have provided a stirring conclusion. Instead, we simply see boxes of Florida ballots stored away in a warehouse to be forgotten forever, a la Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Unfortunately, Recount misses the opportunity to provide a more dramatic--not to mention a more thoroughly historical--story by accepting the narrow premise of the Gore campaign, and not seeing the Florida recount as fundamentally a civil rights issue. This may be too much to ask of the movie--but, as Spacey says, every vote should be counted.