Count the votes, not the lawyers 
   by Gene Lyons

        Next time some knucklehead complains about the left-wing press, ask
him to explain the spin placed on the Florida election recount by the media
consortium that sponsored it. The press interpreted the results to enhance
President Bush's "legitimacy" and explain away the Supreme Court's shameful
decision to prevent the votes from being counted. "Study of Disputed
Florida Ballots Finds Justices Did Not Cast the Deciding Vote," headlined
the New York Times. "In Election Review, Bush Wins Without Supreme Court
Help," said the Wall Street Journal. wrote "Florida Recount Study:
Bush Still Wins." The Los Angeles Times reported that "Bush Still Had Votes
to Win in a Recount, Study Finds," and the Washington Post "Florida
Recounts Would Have Favored Bush."

        In plain fact, the numbers by themselves showed almost the exact
opposite: had every legal Florida vote been counted, Al Gore would be
president.  In order to reach the conclusions they did, the journalists ran
the data through a legalistic blender, interpreting it according to the
arguments of the Bush and Gore campaigns to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Because Gore never asked to include the so-called "overvote," consisting mainly
of ballots rejected by counting machines due to confused voters who'd both
checked their candidate's name and also written it in, consortium
members omitted them too.
      Caused by poorly-designed ballots, the overvotes strongly favored
Gore because of the counties in which they occurred. Only the Orlando
Sentinel had sufficient wit to ask the judge appointed by the Florida
Supreme Court to supervise the recount if over-votes would have counted.
Unsurprisingly, since the "intent of the voter," could hardly be plainer on
a ballot marked twice for the same candidate, he said yes. Had that
happened, Gore, who won the national vote by 539,000 votes, would have
won Florida's electoral votes too. Add the thousands of votes irretrievably
lost to Palm Beach County's notorious "butterfly ballot" and it's clear
the exit polls were right: a clear plurality supported Gore.
     Although a few Democrats are criticizing Gore for not pitching a
belated hissy fit, the Bush presidency is a political fact. Protesting now
would make Gore look ridiculous. Even before the dire events of Sept. 11,
most Democrats accepted the results of the 2000 election more or less
the way they'd accept an unfair traffic ticket-not something they had to like,
but not worth an insurrection either. Times were good, the vote was close,
and neither candidate aroused strong passions.

        The journalists, however, have no excuse for manipulating their own
survey for transparently political ends. Enhancing Bush's "legitimacy"
isn't the media's job any more than it was Justice Antonin Scalia's, who
brought the expression into the disputed election to begin with.  Nor is
their task to let the five offending justices of the U.S. Supreme Court off
the constitutional hook by pretending that they magically intuited how the
vote would have turned out under various scenarios. "The trouble with Bush
v. Gore," as Jonathan Chait wrote in The New Republic "was that it distorted
the law to bring about a desired political outcome." End of story.

        And the trouble with our esteemed Washington press corps is that
they appear to have forgotten who's boss. Legitimacy in our democracy is
conferred by the will of the voters. Period. It's merely ironic that Gore's
handlers asked the courts for the wrong remedy; also arguably symptomatic
of how he ended up calling for a recount in an elec-tion he ought to have
won easily. But it's not the real issue. The election, the presidency and
the U.S. Constitution, see, don't belong to the candidates, to their
political parties, to their lawyers, to the U.S. Supreme Court or to the
decision makers at the Washington Post or CNN. They belong to the
American people, whose will was clearly thwarted in Florida when tens of
thousands of legal votes were thrown out due to a combination of mischance,
incompetence, partisan skulduggery and unwarranted judicial interference.
        The press's job is to shine as clear a light as possible on those events
to help prevent anything like them from happening again. Times might not be
so good, public passion could be very high, and the legitimacy of our
democracy itself could be at stake.

        ALMOST REGARDLESS regardless of which candidate you favored, it
would be hard not to be amused by the droll "correction" that appeared in the
Nov 115 edition of the English news magazine The Economist: "In the issues of
December 16th 2000 to November 10th 2001, we may have given the impression
that George Bush had been legally and duly elected president of the United States.
We now understand that this may have been incorrect, and that the election result
is still too close to call. The Economist apologises for any inconvenience."

        THERE WERE TWO WAYS Meredith Oakley could have refuted my column
pointing out that she got fooled into quoting Bill Clinton out of context supposedly
making alibis for Osama bin Laden. One would be to quote Clinton, proving that she'd
accurately characterized his remarks. Another would be to quote herself, demonstrating
that I'd distorted her meaning. Unable to do either, she resorted to a snide personal gibe.
Too bad, because a straightforward explanation of how she got taken for a ride
might have enlightened readers. It's a rare columnist who never errs.

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