It Depends On What The Meaning Of The Word “Vote” Is

by | Nov 20, 2000

There used to be a half-joking, half-cynical saying on Capitol Hill: “reality is negotiable.” It stood for the idea that there is no fact that can’t be spun out of existence, and no number so absolute that you can’t doctor it off the books. That phrase has since become obsolete, because Bill Clinton has provided […]

There used to be a half-joking, half-cynical saying on Capitol Hill: “reality is negotiable.” It stood for the idea that there is no fact that can’t be spun out of existence, and no number so absolute that you can’t doctor it off the books.

That phrase has since become obsolete, because Bill Clinton has provided a far more eloquent expression of the same idea: “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” Which means: existence as such is conditional and can be distorted to fit one’s wishes.

In a testament to Clinton’s real “legacy,” Al Gore and his campaign managers have applied this motto to the close vote in Florida. They have tried to win the presidency by undermining the objective reality of the vote.

Many votes in Florida are tabulated with punch-card ballots, which require a voter to perform the simple act of knocking a perforated rectangle out of a piece of paper. The ballots are then counted by machine. The purpose of using machines, in case anyone forgot, was to make the system more reliable. The automatic operation of a machine is nonpartisan, unbiased, and incapable of fraud. In a word, it is objective; the result produced by a properly functioning machine is a fact not susceptible to distortion.

And that is precisely why the Gore campaign refused to accept the machine recount; it made their election loss immutable. So they demanded a hand recount.

How do you do a hand recount of a million punch-card ballots? The answer: Any way you like. The punch-card ballots work well for machine counting — but when it comes to hand counting, they are a quagmire of subjectivity. If the perforated hole or “chad” happens to hang by one or two corners — if it was only partially knocked out — that counts as a vote. Sound reasonable? We’re not done yet. If the chad is attached by three corners, campaign officials are empowered to “divine the will of the voter.” How? By telepathy?

And here’s the real kicker. Part way through the hand recount, West Palm Beach County officials decided they would also count “pregnant chads” — holes that were only indented, but not punched out on any corners. After all, they know that it must have been the intent of these voters to support Al Gore.

Are these votes for Gore being created out of thin air? Well, it all depends on what the meaning of the word “vote” is.

Thanks to Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, it looks as if these manufactured votes will not be recognized. But the Gore campaign still has one last, desperate option — an option that would launch them irretrievably into the realm of the arbitrary and subjective. They could demand a re-vote in West Palm Beach County on the grounds that the ballot was “confusing.”

This gambit is based on a lawsuit by voters who claim they “meant” to vote for Gore but actually punched the hole for Pat Buchanan. Given the fact that we have a secret ballot, such claims are inherently unprovable. But worse than that, they elevate the alleged intentions of the voters above the objective reality of their ballots. If this suit succeeds, the consequences would be ominous. If giving voters a ballot with an arrow pointing to the hole for their candidate isn’t good enough, then nothing is — and no election result can ever be final.

But isn’t it important to discover the will of the voters, down to the last vote? Actually, no. Given the possibility for voter error — for voters who don’t mark the right box or punch the right hole — there is no way to divine the “true intent” of millions of voters to within tenths or hundredths of a percent. Nor would winning over a few additional retirees in West Palm Beach give Al Gore some special moral authority to speak for the rest of the nation’s 100 million voters.

What is important is not that every voter’s intent is somehow divined, but rather that the votes are counted by an objective process — a process which, like any legitimate legal process, must be specifically delimited, known beforehand, and devoid of any taint of personal caprice or subjectivity.

By this standard, the only legitimate vote count is the one that was supposed to be certified by Katherine Harris on Saturday. And if we care about the peaceful operation of our political system, Americans should demand that Al Gore and his supporters abide by that count.

Robert Tracinski was a senior writer for the Ayn Rand Institute from 2000 to 2004. The Institute promotes the philosophy of Ayn Rand, author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. Mr. Tracinski is editor and publisher of The Intellectual Activist and TIADaily, which offer daily news and analysis from a pro-reason, pro-individualist perspective. To receive a free 30-day trial of the TIA Daily and a FREE pdf issue of the Intellectual Activist please go to TIADaily.com and enter your email address.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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