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16 November 2000

The Daily update: Why Don can't judge

Synopsis: We're developing our info the old-fashioned way—by rumor, spin, error and deception.

Commentary by Don Imus, Charles McCord
Imus in the Morning, MSNBC, 11/16/00

Chads Have Their Place In Annals Of the Law
Ford Fessenden and Christopher Drew, The New York Times, 11/16/00

Poor Imus! Early this morning, he was trying to figure what the Florida vote-counters should do. 6:10 AM: He notes to sidekick Charles McCord that Governor Bush signed a Texas law which favored hand recounting. Did that involve these punch-card ballots? Imus asked. The kind at issue down in Florida? All of America waited, breathless. Then he got his answer:

MCCORD: I don't know.

Needless to say, lack of knowledge is par for the course when the I Team tackles a topic. But you can hardly blame McCord and Imus for not knowing about Bush's bill. As we noted yesterday, Peter Slevin reported in the Washington Post that Bush's law did concern punch-card ballots. According to Slevin, the law explicitly mandated liberal rules for recounting punch-card votes (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/15/00). But have you ever seen that discussed on TV? Have you seen a Bush spokesman asked why the governor signed such a bill? Republican spin—endlessly stated—says that hand-counting punch-cards is a form of mind reading. Why then did Bush sign the Texas law? We have never once—never once, not one time—seen it asked in the chatter this week.

Is the press corps incompetent, or deferring to spin? We're tortured by the good choices. But for the record, a report today in the New York Times actually takes on some relevant topics. Flying in the face of press corps culture—in which relevant context is so rarely provided—two reporters describe the way punch-card balloting has been handled nationwide.

Their headline? "Chads Have Their Place In Annals Of the Law." Ford Fessenden and Christopher Drew come out of the gate in a hurry:

FESSENDEN AND DREW (paragraph 1): Believe it or not, courts across the country have thought long and hard about the issues of chad upon which the presidential election may yet turn in South Florida's punch-card counties. And their answer to the question of whether an imperfectly punched ballot can be considered a vote has usually been a resounding yes.

That's right, folks—the dispute in Florida is hardly novel. The writers describe one decision:

FESSENDEN AND DREW (2): Even when the sunlight cannot penetrate an indented ballot—yielding a "dimpled chad"—it can be considered a vote, the Massachusetts courts held in overturning a Congressional primary result in 1996.

Would such a judgment be binding in Florida? Of course not—but then, the scribes knew that:

FESSENDEN AND DREW (4): The court rulings in other states would not bind a court in Florida, but they do show a fairly consistent attitude by judges toward punch-card ballots: In a hand recount, officials should use any means to determine what the voter intended, including hanging chad, dimpled chad, even penciled chad.

F & D don't give an exhaustive review. But at least they make a modest effort to provide some context to the Florida struggle—context almost totally absent in the mainstream press corps this week. In an unreported Tuesday press conference, for example, Senators Evan Bayh and Harry Reid described their experiences with hand recounting. Bayh explained how punch cards were recounted in a 1986 Indiana race. Bayh took part in his role as governor:

BAYH: In this case, the Republican incumbent was ahead by, oh, I think about 70 votes in election and ended up winning by about 46. You have to go through, there're a number of—there's an undercount, which you're all familiar with now as a result of this, where the machine just doesn't count a number of the ballots, which I referred to as arbitrary disenfranchisement. That's what you have, because of physical imperfections in the ballot that a human being looking at could correct—you could determine who the voter intended to vote for, even though the machine could notAnd Florida has a very exacting standard here, more exacting, much more exacting than the standard in Indiana, which is you have to have dislodged at least one corner. So it's very similar and I get back to—you know, some of these statements have been made about it's inherently arbitrary, capricious, partisan and that kind of thing. We had three individuals, the state Democratic Party chairman appointed one, the state Republican Party chairman appointed one and I was the third. And we would look at these one at a time—and you know, there was never any question that at the end of the day, they were treated honorably and fairly and we seated the people who, in fact, got the most votes after that physical inspection.

Again: According to Slevin's article, the Texas standard is also more liberal than the ones being used in Florida. There's more "mind-reading" allowed in the law Bush signed than in the process under way in Palm Beach.

On this morning's show, Imus repeatedly asked if hand recounting is more accurate than machine counting. There is considerable empirical experience with that, but it has barely been discussed by the press corps. But then, the relevant Florida statutes have largely gone undiscussed this week, too. On today's Imus, Howard Fineman made quite a point of the fact that he actually read the statutes. (They tend to favor Gore, he judged). But almost no one in the press corps has actually tried to explain these statutes. We don't think that we have seen a coherent account of them, either.

All over the country, people are trying to judge Gore's request for hand recounts. And the press corps has failed—again and again—to explore plainly relevant questions. The corps took a dive on The Dub's Texas law. It has failed to describe how other states do their recounts. It has failed to describe the Florida statutes. In short, it has failed to provide any context at all by which a citizen might judge Gore's request.

Alas! Imus was left to his own devices. He took a call from an unnamed listener who told him about the Texas hand-count law. In Texas, the caller told the I-man, "Most of it is when you fill in a circle [to vote]:"

CALLER: When they say that Bush signed this law saying that a hand count is more accurate, they never report that it's a different kind of ballot.

IMUS: That's what I wondered.

The Post, of course, had said just the opposite. But no one in the press corps seemed to find it worth pursuing. Why did Bush sign such a law? The press corps hasn't bothered to ask. So information develops the old-fashioned way—by rumor, fantasy, spin and deception, the ancestral methods which, even today, we still clearly seem to like best.