The hunt for democratic treasure

Posted: Dec 27, 2000 12:00 AM
Retrospective indignation on who didn't get to vote in Florida raises interesting questions, not least: What about ethnic minorities who, never mind the dimpled chad, didn't go to the polls at all? And never mind the minorities; what about all the non-minorities who didn't vote at all?

The national participation in the election this year reached 51 percent, which means that almost one-half of eligible voters didn't even try to vote. Question: If voting is so clearly a necessary act of vindicated citizenship, why is curiosity so great about John, whose vote was untranscribed, and not about James, who made no attempt to realize his voting right?

The New York Times' editorial page assures us that the huge curiosity over the Florida vote -- there are many organizations engaged in their own vote-counting -- has nothing really to do with the election of a new president. That job has been done and certified. The motivating force for the re-recount is a concern to discover whether there were patterns of injustice from which black Americans especially suffered. It is held that in some districts voting machines were crankier than in others, and that face-to-face with such machines, some voters simply gave up and went home. And lo! These machines are regularly located in areas of higher black concentration.

Does that add up to a violation of the Voting Rights Act? The immediate answer to that question is: Yes -- if the intention of the voting-machine providers was to discourage the black vote. But if there are Model A voting machines that are easy and efficient, and Model F voting machines that are less user-friendly, political iniquity is not proven. The likelier explanation is that we have another instance of poorer sections of town having more potholes than more affluent sections of town, from which distribution of municipal solicitude we can draw the usual conclusions, but these do not tell us that a deprivation of the vote, based on equal voting rights for everybody, has been proven.

On the matter of the posthumous recount, one hears about the "documentary cravings of historians and journalists." Yeah. We say it's spinach and the hell with it. The rabid interest is motivated by a craving psychologically to invalidate the election of George W. Bush. Not invalidate it in the sense that he will be ushered out of the White House, just strip him of his legitimacy. It is the equivalent of a DNA expert sneaking up on the king to snip off a strand of hair that will prove he was not his father's son.

In this space a few weeks back, the motion was made, unsuccessfully, that we sequester the approximately 60,000 ballots, rather than treat them like the Alger Hiss typewriter or the Sacco-Vanzetti pistol. If the results of the new recount have the effect of increasing the size of Bush's vote, no harm is done. If they have the effect of suggesting that Florida belonged to Gore, what have we got that will please other than the National Enquirer and the NAACP? Why not explore the rumor that a majority of the people who signed the Declaration of Independence were drunk?

The impulse to explore and re-explore the Florida vote springs from the democratic faddism that overtook us in the past generation. The Supreme Court decided in 1962 (Baker vs. Carr) that every person had to be counted equally, thus causing, or trying to, a redistricting athwart many arrangements which were the fruit of political and social compromise. In 1965 we got a Voting Rights Act that forbade a state to insist that the voter know how to read. In 1971 we had a constitutional amendment that gave the vote to 18-year-olds. Most recently we have the so-called motor-voter contrivance, relieving potential voters of the ordeal of registering for the vote.

The implicit line here is: The more voters the better, never mind illiteracy or civic indifference. But the logical extension of this position is to insist that every citizen step up and vote. Many societies require every citizen to vote. In some of these, as in Mexico for 70 years, the results are fixed -- the same party always won -- but never mind that. If our obsession is now to be how did the voter in Florida vote, why should we not be interested in the question: How would elections fare if everyone had voted? More blacks than whites, representationally, voted in Florida this time around. What if every white had voted?

How about -- in our mad statistic-driven age -- extrapolating the vote? If 49 percent of Catholics who voted went for Gore, why not give Gore 49 percent of Catholics who did not vote? To go in the other direction would be to require everyone who voted for Gore to be able to spell Gore.

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