The Political Cost of Selective Recounts
Sometimes a decision made in the heat of
partisan battle has
reverberations for years to come.
such decision was the one of Al Gore's campaign to selectively
challenge the results of the 2000 election in Florida by
demanding hand counts of votes cast in three counties --
Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach. The latter two produce
huge majorities for Democratic candidates, and the election
officials in charge of the hand counts were Democrats. In
other words, Gore sought new counts only in areas where
he was likely to gain votes and would not take the risk
of a statewide hand count, where those gains might be offset
by others for George W. Bush.
We know now that, thanks to the news media
consortium that recounted ballots in every Florida county,
recounting under any method and any criterion they tested
would not have overturned Bush's exceedingly thin plurality.
the Gore campaign, Terry McAuliffe during his four years
as Democratic National Chairman and John Kerry in his 2004
presidential campaign encouraged rank-and-file Democrats
to believe that the election was stolen. They decided to
delegitimize an American election for partisan gain. And
in the process, they did much damage to George W. Bush and
the Republicans, to the reputation of the American political
process and, inadvertently but to a far greater extent,
to their own Democratic Party.
The damage to Bush was obvious. A large
minority of Americans has regarded him as an illegitimate
president. That has weakened his ability to work across
party lines and has helped to maintain the intense polarization
of the electorate. It made it more difficult for him to
win re-election in 2004.
damage to the Democrats, I would argue, has been greater.
Many of them remained focused during the first Bush term
on the Florida controversy, and have done less than they
might have to produce attractive new policies. McAuliffe
predicted that anger over the Florida result would defeat
Gov. Jeb Bush in 2002. But Bush won with 56 percent of the
Democrats hoped that anger over Florida
would produce a huge turnout in 2004. John Kerry did win
16 percent more popular votes than Al Gore. But George W.
Bush won 23 percent more popular votes than he did in 2000.
What might have hurt the Democrats even
more, perhaps, is if Gore's strategy had been successful
and he had been installed as president, thanks to the partial
hand count sanctioned by the six-to-one Democratic-appointed
Florida Supreme Court.
We now have a test case of that in the
state of Washington. There, the 2004 election for governor
was exceedingly close. Something like half the ballots in
Washington are cast by mail, and it takes a long time to
count them. On Nov. 10, the count showed Republican Dino
Rossi up by 3,492 votes. Two days later, Democrats in heavily
Democratic King County, which
casts about one-third of the state's votes, started turning
in affidavits to qualify provisional votes -- something
which hadn't been done in more Republican counties. Then,
the King County auditor's office starting finding new ballots
that had been misplaced -- 10,000 on Nov. 16, 1,779 on various
days between Nov. 23 and Dec 18.
A recount on Nov. 24 showed Rossi still
ahead of Democrat Christine Gregoire by 42 votes. But Democrats
on Dec. 3 demanded a hand count, which gave Gregoire a lead
of 129 votes on Dec. 23.
Gregoire has been inaugurated as governor.
But an examination of King County records shows about 1,800
more ballots cast than names of voters who asked for them.
Republicans have brought a lawsuit asking that the election
result be set aside and a new election held.
By a 53 percent to 36 percent margin, voters
believed that Rossi had really won, and by a 51 percent
to 43 percent margin, they favored Rossi in a revote. A
Survey USA poll showed 62 percent favoring a revote.
selective recount, of the sort Gore sought in Florida, has
made Gregoire governor, at least temporarily. But it has
cast a pall of illegitimacy over her far greater than that
cast over George W. Bush by the Florida result.
Of course, no two cases are exactly alike.
But now we have a better idea of what a Gore presidency
secured by a selective recount would have been like. The
negative reverberations from Gore's decision to seek a selective
recount would have been even greater than they were. It's
unfortunate that he didn't seek a statewide recount or that
he didn't follow Richard Nixon's example and decline to
contest a close election.
2005 Creators Syndicate
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