From Research in Review Magazine, Florida State University,
by Julian Pecquet
After spending 36 days in the fall of 2000 in thrall to
politicians, pundits and the press, Americans probably thought they knew all
about the hanging, dangling and pregnant chads that helped decide the
Turns out, those chads only distracted attention from much
more grievous breakdowns during the 2000 election.
At least that’s what longtime Florida political observer
Lance deHaven-Smith believes. His most recent book, The Battle for Florida
(University Press of Florida, 2005), looks at the twilight of democracy in
Ancient Greece and draws disturbing parallels with the institutions in Florida
and the nation during the 2000 election and up until today.
For the past 25 years, deHaven-Smith has been one of just a
handful of observers of Florida’s elections and politics. And while most of his
colleagues don’t go as far as he does in finding fault with Florida’s elected
officials, none question his stature as respected researcher who can be counted
on to provide the press with timely and pithy appraisals of just about any
development in the colorful world of Florida politics.
For this book (his ninth), deHaven-Smith compiled legal documents,
statistical analyses and public records, and flavored them with his
interpretation of what it all means.
Despite having grown up in the South—deHaven-Smith lived
between Florida and Georgia until his departure for graduate studies at Ohio
State—his expertise in the Sunshine State’s election trends was greatly a
matter of chance.
In 1981, the year he came down to teach at Florida Atlantic,
the young political scientist was one of the nation’s top experts on a massive
training program for poor people until one fell flick of a bureaucratic pen in
Washington changed their life, and his.
“It eliminated my subject matter,” he says, laughing now. “I
started studying Florida public opinion and politics. I had gone to Ohio State,
which is a big school in voting research and public opinion research, but it
was all at the national level.”
The other fortuity was that he came down to Florida in the
“I had another job offer at Case Western in Cleveland,” he
says, “and then I went down to interview—this was in Boca Raton. It was in
February. They took me to breakfast at a hotel where we ate outside by the
intracoastal canal. I mean, it was right in the middle of winter, Ohio weather
was terrible, and there I was, outside. So, sign me up.”
There, he immersed himself in Florida politics, under the
tutelage of the famed John DeGrove, a nationally recognized expert in growth
DeHaven-Smith moved on to FSU in 1994, where he headed the
Reuben Askew School of Public Administration and Policy from 1995 to 1998.
Research in Review caught up with the professor while he was
waiting for people to check out his book—and simultaneously sighing in relief
that it’s hardly garnered any attention, yet.
“I think if it would have come out a year earlier, it would
have,” he says. “I’m kind of glad it didn’t, though, because of all the
right-wing critics.” —J.P.
RinR: One of the most interesting points you make in the
book is that the focus on undervotes (ballots containing no vote for
president)—the hanging, dimpled and otherwise pregnant chads—was misplaced.
Instead, you explain that a study by the National Opinion Research Center at
the University of Chicago, which looked at all the ballots that were initially
rejected on election night 2000, revealed a surprise: most of these uncounted
votes were in fact discarded because they were over-votes, instances of two
votes for president on one ballot. What do you think the NORC study tells us
about the election?
LdHS: It’s an embarrassing outcome for George Bush because
it showed that Gore had gotten more votes. Everybody had thought that the chads
were where all the bad ballots were, but it turned out that the ones that were
the most decisive were write-in ballots where people would check Gore and write
Gore in, and the machine kicked those out. There were 175,000 votes overall
that were so-called “spoiled ballots.” About two-thirds of the spoiled ballots
were over-votes; many or most of them would have been write-in over-votes,
where people had punched and written in a candidate’s name. And nobody looked
at this, not even the Florida Supreme Court in the last decision it made
requiring a statewide recount. Nobody had thought about it except Judge Terry
Lewis, who was overseeing the statewide recount when it was halted by the U.S.
Supreme Court. The write-in over-votes have really not gotten much attention.
Those votes are not ambiguous. When you see Gore picked and then Gore written
in, there’s not a question in your mind who this person was voting for. When
you go through those, they’re unambiguous: Bush got some of those votes, but
they were overwhelmingly for Gore. For example, in an analysis of the 2.7
million votes that had been cast in Florida’s eight largest counties, The
Washington Post found that Gore’s name was punched on 46,000 of the over-vote
ballots it, while Bush’s name was marked on only 17,000.
RinR: For your research, you merged this set of data with
detailed profiles of Florida’s electoral precincts. What did you find?
LdHS: One of the things I found that hadn’t been reported
anywhere is, if you look at where those votes occurred, they were in
predominantly black precincts. And (when you look at) the history of black
voting in Florida, these are people that have been disenfranchised, intimidated.
In the history of the early 20th century, black votes would be thrown out on
technicalities, like they would use an X instead of a check mark.
So you can understand why African Americans would be so
careful, checking off Gore’s name on the list of candidates and also writing
Gore’s name in the space for write-in votes. But because of the way the
vote-counting machines work, this had the opposite effect: the machines threw
out their ballots.
RinR: One of the reasons, you argue, that the most popular
candidate ended up losing the election is because so many Americans favored
partisan rhetoric over an unbiased search for truth during the recounts in
2000. How do you explain this?
LdHS: As far as I can tell, it’s the way societies work. One
of the things we’ve learned with public opinion research, the most fundamental
finding of public opinion research of the past 50 years is that the masses
follow the elites.
Most people don’t have time to learn about all these things,
and they look to a particular person that they trust. It may not be the
president, it may be Jesse Jackson, you know, it could be Rush Limbaugh, it
could be somebody who’s not in government, but they look at that person and
defer to that person. It’s a normal thing. I don’t see that changing. It really
is a matter of elites being willing to be committed to democracy and the rule
of law and the rule of reason.
RinR: And this can be a problem because?
LdHS: Unfortunately, the history of democracy is that
leadership philosophy is eroded as the competition between elites becomes more
intense. That’s what happened with Athenian democracy; that’s what happened in
the Roman Republic. So you look at our system today; you see our elites doing
it, and you know we’re in big trouble. It’s in my lifetime that this has
happened, that elites have begun to put winning ahead everything else, ahead of
truth and country.
When Watergate was prosecuted, there were Republicans in
Congress that were after Nixon. They thought what he was doing was
unconscionable, and today that’s not the case. Today, Democrats stick with
Democrats, and Republicans stick with Republicans. They don’t care what their
party leaders have done. Just in my lifetime, I’ve seen this civic culture go
from something that’s respectful of democracy to something that is manipulative
of it. The problem is if you let this go uncorrected, the Democrats are going
to do something worse later, and then the Republicans. It’s just an arms race
almost, and it will just tend to degenerate.
RinR: How does the 2000 election fit into that view?
LdHS: I think my book is at times rather blunt about the
illegalities I think that were committed and the political motives that ran
I wish I could say, “Well, we’ll leave it alone; we won’t
look at it because it would shake people’s confidence in our society.” But I’m
afraid the elite discourse—unless it’s corrected, unless elites start
recognizing that they have a responsibility to maintain a democracy among
themselves—we’re going to have a big problem.
RinR: So, what’s the overarching theme of The Battle for
LdHS: It really tells a simple story in some ways. It
essentially says that the people responsible for administering the election had
a conflict of interest and that they, in a variety of ways, prevented the
recount from being conducted.
I go into explaining…why would it operate like this? One
factor that drove it this way is essentially that the Republicans are on the losing
side of a huge demographic trend in this state: an increasing minority
population. And they know this—it’s not a secret. One reason there was
administrative sabotage of the recount was because a number of steps had
already been taken to try to lock in the Republican control of Florida in the
face of these demographics that are running in the other direction. The other
thing the book looks at, in addition to the long history leading up to this
event, is also what came out afterwards, what was done, were problems
corrected, what investigations were conducted? And the story there is, gee,
there was really very little investigation, amazingly little, given the
importance of the election and the controversy. Frankly, I would never have
written this book had there been any careful investigation done afterwards.
That was what shook me after the election, I was expecting people would go into
it, find out what had happened and straighten out the problems so it wouldn’t
RinR: But Florida’s 2001 Election Reform Act has been
described as a model for the nation. They banned the punch cards; they gave $6
million for voter education; and they’re requiring computer systems to let
voters know, once they’re in the booth, if they’ve voted too many times or failed
to cast a valid vote. Are you saying those changes are just cosmetic?
LdHS: They were worse than cosmetic. They focused on the
technology, which was not the real problem. The problem was you just had
partisans running the system at every level, even on the Supreme Court. It was
everywhere. So if you wanted to correct this system, you’ve got to get that
partisanship out of the process. And that was not done.
And the touch-screen system—it’s a terrible thing that’s
being done with this technology, because you can’t double-check it. You have no
paper trail on it.
RinR: Aren’t the new machines supposed to let you know if
you didn’t cast a valid vote?
LdHS:: No, that’s one of the problems. It’s obviously not
letting people know. There was a special election in the spring, where only one
contest was on the ballot. I think it was the spring of 2004, in Palm Beach
County where several hundred voters came…and turned in ballots that didn’t
register a vote. [Robert] Wexler, a congressman there, sued to try to get the
touch-screen machines either decertified or require a paper ballot because he
said, “People aren’t going to come out for this one thing and not cast a vote.”
It shows that the machines have got a problem. But the state
RinR: There’s been a profusion of books and essays already
written about the election. What do you bring to the table?
LdHS: For one thing, I study Florida politics and know the
law. I’d been director of the local government commission several years
earlier, which looks at all the local governments and how they’re staffed, how
they’re organized, what their financing is.
I had also been the executive director of the cabinet reform
commission in 1996. What both of those commissions ended up exposing was a
fairly arcane, poorly understood cabinet system and inter-governmental system
that is really how our elections are run, how our law-enforcement policies are
implemented, road planning, things like that—things people don’t think that
much about. So I knew about all that. I was in Tallahassee. I got to watch a
lot of the election controversy itself. And I had the political science
background on the demographic trends, the election trends. So I really had a
unique combination of background experiences and subject matter expertise and
then plain old luck in being … in the capital city of the state where it
RinR: Throughout the book, you repeat that Florida’s
election law—especially the rule that no vote “shall be declared invalid or
void if there is a clear indication of the intent of the vote”—is in fact much
more straightforward than was made out during the controversy. So then, who do
you fault the most for making it all seem so murky?
LdHS: I would say [then-Secretary of State] Katherine Harris
in terms of murky—in terms of what the law intended and what it meant. There
was a contradiction in the law. What it said was you have to get the recount
done within a very short time, and it just wasn’t possible. But that’s not
uncommon. You just have to interpret it with common sense.
Part of what was going on was the stakes were really high;
the people involved were very inexperienced; Harris didn’t know [Attorney
General Bob] Butterworth; they were not cordial. But if it had been a group of
leaders who had been around for a while, they would have sat down and easily
said, “Well, here’s a way to resolve this problem.” But that wasn’t the aim of
the people involved. The aim was from the beginning to stop the recount. Yet if
you looked at the law and if you looked at the case law, what Florida had
consistently said was if you can count the votes, you must count the votes. You
cannot penalize the voters for mistakes that the administrators make or that
the law may make. You really have to give the voters the advantage.
RinR: Throughout The Battle for Florida, you claim the law
was bent out of shape to satisfy partisan goals. Does that mean you think some
of the actions by Florida’s elected officials merit a legal investigation?
LdHS: Yes, absolutely. To me, I think what this election
teaches us is, first of all, we need to strengthen the penalties for election
tampering and we need to return to an earlier understanding of “high crimes and
misdemeanors.” We’ve gotten to the point today where we’re looking for smoking
guns all the time. And the truth is that these officials take an oath of office
to uphold the constitution, and that oath is a broad requirement that they
enforce the laws with good intentions.
But there wasn’t even a cursory investigation of the events,
which points to another legal requirement…that we develop some kind of
mechanism to investigate the government. We have the government investigating
itself, and inevitably it’s unlikely you’re going to get much investigation. If
you look at the last 40 years at government investigating itself, the only time
we’ve gotten aggressive investigation is when one party controlled Congress and
the other party controlled the executive branch. (During) Watergate, it was
Democrats investigating a Republican; Iran-Contra, Democrats investigating a
Republican; Monica Lewinsky, the Clinton impeachment, Republicans investigating
a Democrat. There, you get some aggressiveness. But otherwise, you really have
a system that’s not accountable because it won’t investigate itself. And if it
investigates itself, it exonerates itself.
RinR: Isn’t that just human nature?
LdHS: Absolutely, and that’s what our institutions are
designed to do: Take the human beings with all their best and worst and
structure them in a way that we can produce a democratic, responsible
government. We’ve come a long way. I mean, if you think about it, secret
balloting is a relatively new invention. In Reconstruction, when blacks were
first voting, they did it in public. You had a specific ballot that you took in
for a particular candidate, and they knew who you were voting for.
It’s all part of the historical developmental process where
we try to make our government more democratic, more responsive, more
transparent. But we’ve still got a long way to go.
RinR: What about recount procedures? Have those been
LdHS: There are now specified standards. So let’s say we
need to have a recount: You would now have standards that would be uniform
across the state as opposed to under the law in 2000, (when) the election
commissions at the local level were supposed to determine that.
But the reality was (in 2000) people were using rules of
thumb. Now…the law specifies what the requirements are.
RinR: How do you think your political beliefs influence your
views? You call yourself an independent, right?
LdHS: Certainly when I came to Tallahassee in 1994, I viewed
myself as part of a professional leadership class in the state. There was a
group of professional, ex-politicians – [Former Governor] Reubin Askew would have
been one—of people who were knowledgeable and active and interested and not
But state politics changed. When [Gov. Lawton] Chiles beat
Jeb Bush by 60,000 votes, it was one of the closest elections up to that time.
I remember Chiles saying that he had never experienced a campaign like that.
Jeb Bush had brought in a Washington-style, highly effective, highly
professional campaign and nearly beat him. Chiles was a legend in Florida, an
incumbent governor, and he almost got beat. By 1998, Jeb Bush…went about really
consolidating authority, and it became a very partisan system. And at that
point, frankly, my political orientation quit mattering. What started mattering
to me was having a democracy, having a government that was actually responsive.
One of the things I would hear a lot is people would say, well, if the
Democrats were in, they would do the same thing. And I thought about that,
and…my conclusion…is “hell no, they wouldn’t.” I know the Democrats; I know
Reuben Askew. That guy would have been an absolute maniac about being
technically and legally and ethically straightforward and correct in the
application of the law. If there had been a recount under his administration,
he would have been bending over backwards to make sure it was right. (But)
today, the belief in the truth, that there (even) is a truth, has pretty much
vanished across the board. It’s not just Democrats; it’s not just Republicans.
But it’s been replaced by cynicism.
RinR: Finally, I’d like to go back to the “big picture”
theme of your book. You call for an unflinching search for truth in the
tradition of the Ancient Greeks who questioned everything. But Socrates, the
top truth-searcher of the day, was put to death for constantly prodding
citizens to examine whether their convictions were grounded in a firm
foundation of facts—suggesting he was “too democratic” to live in a Republic.
Two thousand and some years later, what makes you think a majority of
Americans—or anybody else, for that matter—want to stare their democratic
shortcomings in the face?
LdHS: I’m not sure that they do.
After Socrates was executed, Plato, his student, went out to
the countryside to buy a piece of land. He bought it from the family of a war
hero named Academus. … And the academy today is called that by virtue of this
decision. The reason Plato went out of town is, he realized the town people
didn’t want to hear that their beliefs about the gods were myths, that their
institutions were founded somewhat arbitrarily, that they didn’t know what they
were talking about when they said they wanted justice. You’d like to hope that
in the 21st century people would be mature enough, but I don’t know. This is a
turning point potentially for us. If we don’t recognize the disorder, I don’t
think we have many years left of democracy in the United States. I’m not
entirely convinced that it’s not too late, even as we speak.
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