Murky, Messy Democracy

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Quoth The Daily News, “Ballot review doesn’t settlepresidential vote — Bush would likely have won partial recounts, butnarrowly lost a state-wide Florida review.”

Quoth The Globe and Mail, “Election tally finds Bush wonFlorida (probably).”

QuothThe Chronicle-Herald, “Gore would have won Florida-widerecount.”

Quoth The National Post, “Florida vote still too close to call,recount finds.”

So who won? Bush? Gore? Too close to call? Take your pick in this sorrystory of vote-counting incompetence and media pusillanimity. On January 9,less than a month after the U.S. Supreme Court’s reactionary majorityabandoned the juridical precepts that had guided their careers and ordered ahalt to recounts that threatened to make Al Gore president, eight mediaorganizations formed a consortium to get to the bottom of the Floridaelection mess.

The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall StreetJournal, the Associated Press, The Los Angeles Times,The Palm Beach Post, The St. Petersburg Times, and CNN(which later dropped out) hired the non-profit National Opinion ResearchCentre to recount the votes.

The process had just been completed in early September, when terroristscrashed jets into the World Trade Center, and the putative presidentresponded by declaring war.

Suddenly, the mightiest news organizations got cold feet. How would it look,at the dawn of America’s first war of the new century, if they were toreveal that the man who declared it wasn’t president after all?

So they shelved the project “indefinitely.” The decision hadnothing to do with not wanting to embarrass George W. Bush, they assured us.It was purely a matter of resources.

With so many reporters and editors tied up covering the aftermath ofSeptember 11, these media giants could spare no one to assemble the NationalOpinion Research Center’s data into news stories that would answer thesimple question, “Who did the voters really elect, anyway?”

It was a grievously craven decision, an abdication of the role of a freepress. But now that we’ve seen the results, two months late or twelve,depending on when you think the votes should have been counted, the matterseems murkier than ever. Even headline writers can’t agree.

Conservative newspapers, a category that includes most major U.S. dailies,found it impossible to resist the irony that Gore would have lost — by225 votes — had recounts been conducted in the four counties hedemanded. Likewise, Bush would have won — by 493 votes — had theSupreme Court’s reactionary rump not intervened to halt the widerrecount ordered by the Florida Supreme Court.

Most newspapers were honest enough to admit somewhere in their stories thatGore would have won — by about 100 votes — had every ballot in thestate been accurately counted.

It turns out those were only three of nine scenarios examined by theNational Opinion Research Centre. Applying the remaining six standards, Bushwould have won one and Gore five, including those that attempted to discernthe clear intention of the voter, as the law required.

So you might say the recount came out Gore six, Bush three. Except that themargin of victory in all cases is so small it probably falls within themargin of error of the painstaking recount.

What’s really astonishing is that a great democratic nation would clingto fragmented, haphazard voting systems that can’t be relied upon inclose elections. There has been little progress toward reform in the yearsince the botched vote.

The news agencies’ inept handling of all this calls to mind a day inthe Second World War, when New Yorker writer E. B. White received a letterfrom the U.S. Writers’ War Board asking for a statement on“The Meaning of Democracy.”

Replied White: “Surely the Board knows what democracy is. It is theline that forms on the right. It is the don’t in Don’t Shove. Itis the hole in the stuffed shirt through which the sawdust slowly trickles;it is the dent in the high hat.

“Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of thepeople are right more than half of the time. It is the feeling of privacy inthe voting booths, the feeling of communion in the libraries, the feeling ofvitality everywhere. Democracy is the score at the beginning of the ninth.It is an idea which hasn’t been disproved yet, a song the words ofwhich have not gone bad. It’s the mustard on the hot dog and the creamin the rationed coffee. Democracy is a request from a War Board, in themiddle of a morning in the middle of a war, wanting to know what democracyis.”

But a newspaper deciding, in the middle of a war, that it’s too busy tofind out who really won the presidency? That ain’t democracy.

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