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17 November 2000

The Daily update: I-man hanging

Synopsis: Imus began to get some answers. But why had the press left him hanging?

Commentary by Don Imus
Imus in the Morning, MSNBC, 11/17/00

Alas, Vote-Count Machines Are Only Human
Ford Fessenden and Christopher Drew, The New York Times, 11/17/00

Commentary by Brit Hume, Dick Cheney
Special Report, Fox News Channel, 11/16/00

Laws on Manual Counts Vary Widely Around U.S.
Peter Slevin, The Washington Post, 11/13/00

Commentary by Ted Koppel, Fred Thompson
Nightline, ABC, 11/16/00

We kid the I-man, but let's be fair—at least he's been asking the question (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/16/00). All week, Don Imus raised an obvious question—are hand recounts really more accurate? Other questions have come to our mind: What do the Florida statutes say on recounting? How have recounts been handled in other states? But the slacker press corps has stumbled along, providing exactly no context whatever, failing to help interested citizens like Imus judge the biggest event of the day.

This morning, though—Hail Columbia!—they gave Don a scrap of real info:

IMUS: You know, we've been talking about this for the past couple of days, could somebody demonstrate that the hand count was more accurate than the machine count? Well, these interviews that somebody from the New York Times conducted with the manufacturers of these machines, they say that yes, ultimately a hand count is more accurate. So that—we've been asking that. Nobody's been able to demonstrate that.

Imus referred to a page-one story by—who else?—Ford Fessenden and Christopher Drew, the scribes who wrote, in yesterday's Times, about the way that courts around the country have handled disputes over recounts. For today's article, Fessenden and Drew interviewed the manufacturers of the punch-card machines used in Florida. Here's what the big poobahs said:

FESSENDEN AND DREW: Ultimately, industry officials said, the most precise way to count ballots is by hand.

Is that correct? We don't have a clue. "Industry officials" are surely fallible. And the current matter should be settled by Florida precedent and Florida law, not by what machine mavens think. But this latest article again provides context for people trying to judge these questions. The article provides the kind of context that has been sorely lacking in the press corps this week.

Imus, of course, was being polite in the last comment transcribed. It isn't that no one's been "able" speak to these questions; instead, no one in the press corps has bothered to try. What do the Florida statutes say? What is the historical record around the country? We've been following this story for the past week, and we can't begin to say. Meanwhile, Imus was asking an obvious question on his program all through the week. This morning, his view of the recounts seems to have changed based on what he read in the Times. Why did he have to wait so long to get even elementary context?

How lazy has the coverage been this week? Look at last night's Special Report. Brit Hume sat down with VP hopeful Dick Cheney. Hume asked an obvious question:

HUME: The point has been made that manual recounts are permitted under Texas law, for example, the state where you've lived for the past eight years, and of course where Governor Bush is the governor, and I, it's not clear to me that the governor has, or you, have felt that they're objectionable there. Why are they objectionable in Florida and not in Texas?

In fact, Hume played softball with his question; according to Peter Slevin's article in Monday's Washington Post, Governor Bush signed a law which mandated hand recounts in Texas, and which specifically mandated liberal standards for recounting punch-card ballots (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/15/00). According to Slevin, the Texas standards which Bush signed are much more lax—involve much more "mind-reading"—than the standards adopted in Florida this week. But how did Cheney answer Hume's question? A person might think that he dodged:

CHENEY: First of all, Brit, you need to dig into the technical aspects of it. The overwhelming number of counties in Texas use an optical scan ballot, not a punch-card ballot. It's a very different kind of a situation in terms of a manual count. You don't have the kind of problems you have with regard to the punch-card ballots where you're trying to sort out between hanging chads and pregnant chads, all of the problems you've seen in connection with Florida. It's a very different situation.

That was Cheney's full answer. Cheney was clearly right on one thing—there are a limited number of Texas counties which use the punch-card ballots. But according to Slevin, Texas law explicitly says how those punch-cards should be recounted. Here's what his article said:

SLEVIN: Palm Beach [County] announced it would not accept "pregnant" or "dimpled" chads that show an indentation but no evidence of being detached from the ballot, while Texas law allows a ballot to be counted if canvassers see an indentation that shows "a clearly ascertainable intent on the part of the voter to vote."

If Slevin is right, then Cheney turned the facts on their head. It is Texas law that allows "pregnant" and "dimpled" chads to be counted as votes. The Florida counties had set stricter rules for recounting. Here again are the Texas standards as reported by Slevin on Monday:

SLEVIN: Texas, Michigan and Kentucky are among the states that specify rules for examining punch ballots by hand. They set out various tests, including holding up the ballot to see if a light shines through and inspecting the chad, the tiny part of the ballot that would fall away if a hole were properly punched.

In Texas, a ballot is counted if one of four conditions are met: if light shines through, if two corners of the chad are detached, if the indentation is clear enough or if the ballot reflects "by other means" a clear intent to choose a candidate.

If Slevin is right, Hume should have followed up, asking Cheney to clarify his answer. Hume, however, simply moved on. The same thing happened on Nightline last night. Fred Thompson made the GOP case:

TED KOPPEL: Go to Senator Thompson first this time. It's the law in Texas, I believe it's also the law in Florida, that when there is a dispute over a machine counted ballot that a hand-counted ballot is mandated—not requested, mandated. So why not go with that?

THOMPSON: In Texas, it requires one recount. Most of the ballots there are not these punch-card ballots.

KOPPEL: I understand. We're just talking about machine on the one hand and hand count on the other, when the law in Texas is you go with the hand count, not the machine count.

THOMPSON: Well, some ballots, as you know, states do it differently. Counties do it differently. Some ballots are more conducive—

KOPPEL: I'm just talking about Texas.

THOMPSON: to a hand count.

KOPPEL: I'm talking about Governor Bush, and it was Governor Bush who signed that law, incidentally.

THOMPSON: I'm telling you the ballot—most of the ballots they use in Texas are not like the ones we are dealing with here, where you have these chads that are hanging or swinging or bulging and all of the foolishness that we've got down here that a court won't even touch. I think it's apples and oranges.

But again—if Slevin is right, "all that foolishness" which Thompson derides is mandates by the Texas law. Koppel should have followed up. Like Hume, though, he simply moved on.

Again, the matter in Florida should be decided by Florida precedent and Florida law. But three full days after Slevin's piece, two major anchors didn't seem to know the facts which Slevin laid out. Is Slevin right in what he said? We don't have a bureau which critiques Texas law. But the press corps has shown no interest at all in resolving this basic issue. All over the airwaves, GOP spokesmen have derided the hand counts as a form of "mind reading." But what did Bush require in Texas? Is it true that hand recounts are mandated there? Slevin raised the matter on Monday—and his piece went right down the memory hole. Our slacker press corps knew the rules: Ignore the facts. Let the spinning go on. In matters like this, don't say Boo.

This morning, Imus finally began to see that there may be a problem with machine recounting. But the I-man had asked the question all week. Alas—the corps left him hanging.


The Daily postscript (11/17/00)

Post pattern: This week, the Washington Post op-ed page has featured name-calling, bum facts, and curious logic. Today, Charles Krauthammer made it three, joining George Will and Michael Kelly's weird judgments about the Big Recount. For the most part, Krauthammer kept the name-calling under control. But here we go again—get a load of this logic:

KRAUTHAMMER: [A] manual recount subjects computer cards, literally, to manipulation. Under this method, the presidency of the United States hangs by a thread, the thread holding the dangling chad. Any waving, shuffling, rubbing or other movement can easily cut the thread, dislodge the chad, and produce a "vote."

No doubt about it—a dangling chad can fall off when punch-cards are recounted. But that doesn't "produce a vote"—by all the standards which we have reviewed, a chad which is hanging on by one corner already is a vote. That's the standard Bush adopted in Texas; it's the standard adopted in the Florida counties. It's also, we think, the standard of logic; if three corners of the chad have been dislodged, the voter has attempted to vote. Does a dangling chad "become a vote" if the chad falls off in recounting? Krauthammer seems to say it does. How closely has he been watching?

By the way, observers have noted the number of chads dislodged by the recounting process. For the record, there is no reason to think that all those chads were part of the presidential vote. There are many races on the Florida ballot; all of them produce dangling chads. If 74 chads end up on the floor, only a few likely came from presidential ballots, and surely most of them were already "votes," just hanging on "by a thread."

Not by Hand
Charles Krauthammer, The Washington Post, 11/17/00