Asymmetrical Information - Megan McArdle

05.06.13

No, Democrats Did Not Just Want to "Count All the Votes" in the 2000 Election.

"Count all the Votes" became the rallying cry after the courts told Democrats they couldn't just count some of the votes

Last week I wrote that "count all the votes" emerged comparatively late in the game of the Bush v. Gore saga.  A number of people have pushed back, here and elsewhere, have pushed back.  Gore, they say, offered to do a hand recount of all 67 Florida counties on November 15th; if Bush would support it, and withdraw his lawsuits, Gore said he would withdraw his lawsuits too.  Bush turned him down.  This is supposed to prove that Democrats always had a committment to counting all the votes.  

Well, not so fast.  For starters, when Bush turned him down, Gore didn't go and start asking for recounts in all 67 Florida counties.  His committment to "counting all the votes" was conditional on Bush withdrawing all of his lawsuits.  It was a second-best alternative to just counting some of the votes, one which he offered when it looked like he might be losing.  When it was turned down, he went on with his partial recount strategy.  

And because of this, the voices raised in favor of counting all the votes were somewhat muted.  A Nexis search for the phrase "Count all the votes" in major newspapers turns up just 26 uses in the week after the Florida election--before Gore had made his offer.  In the first 17 days of the recount, it occurs just 57 times.  Then, on November 24th, the Supreme Court accepted cert for the Florida recount, with a hearing to be held on December 1st.  

Observers knew that this meant the Florida Supreme Court ruling allowing partial recounts was likely going to be overturned (if they weren't likely to overturn, they would have just dodged the case on a technicality).  Suddenly, folks get very interested in counting all the votes: there are almost 100 mentions between November 24th and November 30th, with most of those seeming to come in the few days before the hearing.  Then things quite down for the three days until the court decides: just 25 mentions.  

Then on December 4th, the Supreme Court vacates the Florida Supreme Court's order allowing the partial recounts to be included in the total, and interest in counting all the votes explodes: 121 mentions in the 8 days that follow.  And almost all of that was clustered in the three days immediately surrounding the court's stay of the recounts, and its decision in Bush v. Gore.

Overall, there are 73 mentions of the phrase "count all the votes" in major newspapers between November 7th, 2000 and November 27th, 2000 . . . more than halfway through the recount process.  Over the next 20 days, it occurs more than 250 times.

In other words, people didn't get interested in counting all the votes when Al Gore offered a statewide manual recount as an alternative to lawsuits. They got interested in counting all the votes when the partial recounts suffered legal setbacks.  People are retroactively remembering something that emerged several weeks into the recounts as having been more central to the Democratic case than it actually was.  "Count all the Votes" became the central argument only after the Supreme Court had squelched the preferred "count some of the votes".  

People remember having been outraged when the Supreme Court declined to "count all the votes". But partisan fervor was already running very, very high by late November.  Odds are that anyone who is old enough to remember that election was very probably just as angry and passionate before "count all the votes" emerged as the unifying rallying cry for Democrats.  Indeed, most of those very people were probably in favor of counting some of the votes before they were against it.

They remember this particular issue as having been more salient than it was for two reasons: first, because all of us tend to remember the end of an experience better than the middle, and second, because "count all the votes" is a much easier grudge to nurse than "I wanted my guy to win, and he didn't".  

I don't mean to suggest that Democrats are somehow specially hypocritical here; I am personally skeptical, for example, that Katherine Harris' maneuvers to cut off vote counts were motivated by her fervent committment to administrative efficiency and strict deadline discipline.  Both sides had reasonable points, and reasonable grievances.   But Al Gore was running for president, not Santa.  The procedure he chose--and stuck with, until a court told him to knock it off--was not fair.  And by the time the case hit the Supreme Court, his supporters (and the Florida Supreme Court) had already invested a huge amount of credibility in coming up with creative reasons that it should happen anyway.

Ironically, I suspect that if Gore had simply unilaterally requested a statewide manual recount, or the Florida Supreme Court had forced one upon him, the United States Supreme Court would have probably stayed out of it.  But they didn't, and as they say, the rest is history.