Shortly after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson allegedly called Kennedy aide Ralph Dungan into his office. "I want to tell you why Kennedy died," Dungan reports him as saying. "Divine retribution," Johnson thundered, "He murdered Diem and then he got it himself." Three weeks before Kennedy’s death, South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem was overthrown and murdered in a US-instigated coup. Kennedy’s murder in Dallas, LBJ believed, was punishment for the crime in Saigon. The current debacle in Florida is also justice of sorts. It is retribution for every arrogant US intervention in other countries’ elections, for every sanctimonious lecture about "democracy." Just one month ago, the US Government instigated yet another coup, this time in Belgrade. Today people in Yugoslavia have no electricity and can barely afford basic foodstuffs. The Serbs are not the first people to be fooled into doing what the United States says rather than what it does.
While monitoring and criticizing the conduct of elections all over the world, the US Government happily tolerates gross political abuses here at home. When it comes to Yugoslavia and Peru the United States demands that scrupulous public officials count ballots. In America, however, voted are counted not by disinterested public officials but by political operators. There is no uniform voting or counting procedure. States and even individual counties follow their own laws and regulations. Thus Republican Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris rejects requests from Democratic counties to include the result of hand recounts in the Presidential vote totals. "The reasons given in the requests are insufficient to warrant waiver of the unambiguous filing deadline imposed by the Florida Legislature," she declares. No one takes seriously her claim that she is following Florida law, and not the wishes of W. in Austin. Meanwhile, Democratic Attorney General of Florida Butterworth also Gore campaign chairman in Florida instructs Palm Beach County to ignore her and to go on hand counting.
According to the Associated Press, "In Florida, the canvassing boards, which manage recounts and certify results, are composed of a county judge, the county elections supervisor and the chairman of the county commission. All are elected." Palm Beach County canvassing board voted 2 to 1 to conduct a full manual recount. The board’s two Democrats voted in favor, the Republican voted against. Democrats and Republicans disagree even on what should count as a vote. Florida state judge, Jorge Labarga, has ruled that it is up to the county canvassing board to decide which ballot markings should count as votes. This was in response to a motion brought by local Democrats arguing that ballot sheets with indentations only, or "dimples," should count as votes. According to the judge, the board "has the discretion to consider ballots and to accept or reject them" if they are attached at all four corners and have been poked at. What counts as a vote is a matter of "discretion" and that in turn depends on which party holds a majority in the canvassing board.
According to former Carter Administration official and veteran foreign election "monitor," Robert A. Pastor: "The United States is at the most primitive level. I mean, it’s below Nicaragua and Haiti in the sense that it doesn’t have a national election commission and that the composition of the Federal Election Commission is made up solely of members of the parties." The FEC is divided evenly between Democrats and Republicans. The one issue on which the two parties are in absolute agreement is to keep out third-party interlopers.
The farce of the so-called "absentee ballots" is yet to come. It is reported that in Wisconsin, college students voted twice once by absentee ballot and once in Wisconsin. According to Secretary of State Katherine Harris, in Florida absentee ballots do not even have to have a postmark dated November 7 or earlier. "With regard to the status of overseas absentee ballots," she explained the other day, "they must have been executed as of last Tuesday. They must bear a foreign postmark as provide in Section 101.62(7), and they must be received by the Supervisors of Elections by midnight Friday. They are not required, however, to be postmarked on or prior to last Tuesday." In other words, people are free to vote after the results of the Presidential elections are known. As Mickey Kaus points out: "To vote after Election Day…you don’t even have to fake the postmark date. You just have to get a witness to fib for you about when you filled the ballot out, and find some fast mail service." Besides how hard is it to forge a postmark? And what do you do about illegible postmarks or mailed in ballots that have no postmarks? Not surprisingly, this turns out to be yet another issue left to the "discretion" of county officials. The Washington Post reported the other day: "County officials say many of the envelopes containing… late overseas absentee ballots lack a postmark. The law requires a postmark or other documentation to prove a ballot was mailed no later than Election Day. ‘It’s really up to the canvassing board to decide whether we can accept them without a postmark,’ said Trish Stamm, absentee ballot clerk in Alachua County, where she said there are 56 late-arriving overseas absentee ballots waiting for Friday’s count." "Discretion" is breaking out all over. According to USA Today "of the 302 outstanding in Hillsborough, 57 have been received since Nov. 7 and are waiting to be counted…. [O]f the 57 overseas ballots that have come in, a dozen have illegible postmarks and two were postmarked Dec. 2…. Whether and how those 14 ballots will be counted remains to be determined."
Whoever is appointed winner of Election 2000, it is hard to see what it means given the staggering scale of the spoiled ballots. About 180,000 roughly 3 percent of Florida’s voters last week had their ballots discounted. Some chose more than one candidate. Some failed to vote for President. Some did not punch their ballots hard enough. In the 1996 Presidential elections, 2.5 percent of the votes were discounted. 2.5 percent! Most elections are decided by margins much smaller than that. Spoiled ballots work to the advantage of Republicans. One can see this in Florida. Of the Florida ballots that did not register a vote for President, 85,466 came from counties Bush won and 94,468 from counties that Gore won. Democratic voters are almost certainly less competent than Republican voters. The Democrats generally do well among those not smart enough to figure out a ballot paper and among those too weak to vote properly. According to exit polls, of the 5 percent of voters who have no high school degree 59 percent went for Gore and only 39 percent for Bush. Of the 22 percent of voters who are 60 and older 51 percent went for Gore and 47 percent for Bush. This explains George W. Bush’s reluctance to sanction hand counts. It would eliminate the Republicans’ built-in advantage.
The Florida fiasco is a fitting end to a mind-numbingly boring, issueless campaign. As always, the smaller the stakes the fiercer the fight. The 2000 Election campaign was one of the bitterest in recent memory. Yet it was also about nothing. Two smaller than life figures fought for the right to reside in the White House, to fly around on Air Force One, and to act as national toastmaster in chief. A Bush Administration will be very much like a Gore Administration. Whoever is President, there will almost certainly be a recession as well as another impeachment trial. Partisans of Al Gore tried to fool the American people into believing that huge issues were at stake. Alec Baldwin threatened to leave the country. Gloria Steinem warned that a woman’s right to an abortion was about to disappear. But Americans were not buying. They sensed that the celebrities cared little about abortion, and even less about Social Security. They were after one thing only: continued access to the White House. This is what the fight between Bush and Gore was really about. Who will have access to the Oval Office? Will it be oil barons and corporate CEOs? Or will it be movie and media types? May the fight over "dimples" and "pregnant chads" long continue!
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