No-Exit Election Hell

Will future ballot counts prove Al Gore really won? It all depends on who's doing the counting.


Since November 8, the indefatigable Gore campaign has attempted to dramatize and ennoble its struggle for Florida's electoral votes by placing that fight in a series of striking historical contexts. Among the most notorious of these efforts have been the exploitation of the Holocaust, of American slavery, and of the fight for voting rights symbolized by the invocation of Selma, Alabama. In such tropes, Al Gore is not merely seeking office, but is in courageous pursuit of universal justice. Similarly, the forces that stand in his way are cast not merely as political opponents, but as enemies of all that is just. The breathtaking audacity of such arguments notwithstanding, Gore's basic rhetorical assumptions are both common and transparent. He has been trying to influence opinion by characterizing competing efforts negatively, while leaving the public at large outside his little dramas. The public's only role in such appeals is to judge Gore and George W. Bush.

But Gore's most recent rhetorical device represents a real narrative advance over these early appeals. It involves no symbols of the past, but is set in the future. It doesn't leave the public passively to judge, but invites the public to be an active character in the narrative—indeed, the central character. It is also seemingly effective, as it has been repeated for days by Gore and his allies without refutation, and in fact has been picked up by sympathetic journalists.

The story is this: If we don't count the disputed ballots in Miami-Dade county, someday, someone—a journalist, an academic, a statistician—will use Florida's access laws to count them. What if that inevitable recount shows that Gore really won the election? What if the wrong man is sitting in the White House? How will we feel then? So let's count those ballots now.

This is an effective appeal both factually and dramatically. Its internal drama works because the story is not only about the listener (rather than being about Gore or Bush), it clearly signals the desired emotional response. How will we feel if we learn that the wrong man is in the White House? Supposedly, we'll feel just awful. We'll slap our collective foreheads and ask, Why didn't we recount just one more time when we had a chance? We won't be able to hear Al Gore's name without experiencing shame and guilt. People will often go to great lengths to avoid experiencing either of these emotions, and brandishing them in advance while offering an exit is a classic piece of persuasion.

As for this story's factual assumptions, not only is it likely that some independent party will recount Florida's ballots, someone has already started. The right-wing activist group Judicial Watch was engaged in a recount of Palm Beach County's votes when it was interrupted by the contest before Judge N. Saunders Sauls. Judicial Watch announced that it intended to recount the ballots in every one of the state's 67 counties. Others may be expected to do the same thing.

But how likely is it that some future ballot-counters will conclude that Al Gore got more votes? It seems an absolute certainty. It is also just as certain that a different set of counters will conclude that Bush won. That's the flaw in the Gore scenario.

One of the hidden strengths of Gore's what-if narrative is that it posits a future sense of certainty about the Florida results, of eventual election "closure." That clearly seems desirable, as does the wish that this moment of closure not take us by historical surprise. But if there is one lesson to be learned from the recount spectacle, it is that the moment of closure can never take us by surprise, because this moment can never arrive.

The reason, of course, is that we are unable to agree about what a "vote" is. Under one theory of dimpled intent, Gore may overtake Bush; under a different theory of chad detachment, Bush maintains his lead forever. The whole country watched these conflicting theories play out in the November televised recount of Broward County's disputed ballots. There, the Republican canvassing board member searched for intent, ballot by ballot, with a magnifying glass. He usually found insufficient evidence that a vote had been cast. In contrast, his Democrat counterpart discerned Gore votes, one after the other, with the merest glance. Indeed, Broward notoriously changed its standards repeatedly in mid-count, discovering ever more Gore votes in the process.

If you want to imagine this election's true future, start with Broward's hopeless indeterminacy. Gore wants us to imagine an eventual convening of ballot scientists who will arrive at statistical certainty. But the truth is a no-exit election hell, eternity in a dim, doorless counting chamber, surrounded by bickering partisans attempting divination. Not unlike the present.