Loose Ends, Part 3: “Counting Every Vote”

When did the concept of majority voting become so difficult for so many to understand?

There was a trashy science fiction thriller on the paperback book stand in the early ’80s called “IQ 80,” about a virus that gets loose from a medical laboratory and gradually lowers the average IQ in the United States to 80. Eventually an addled New York Times, riddled with typos, prints the headline “IS WE GETTING DUMMER?” One might wonder if that virus is in the air indeed when something Americans understood instinctively for generations seems to suddenly be beyond the ability of so many columnists, politicians, and citizens to comprehend.

Of course, it wasn’t a virus (well, we assume); the “dummering” of the public on this issue was brought about by three factors, listed in reverse order of dumness:

  • The first of these was the 2000 election, when a lot of Americans suddenly learned that the country elects presidents by electoral votes, and the innovative Team Gore managed to sell the idea that a voter didn’t really have to take the trouble to check his or her ballot or even vote properly to cast a valid vote. All they had to do was make a pass at it, turn in a ballot with vague or inconclusive or contradictory designations (“under votes”, “over votes”, or “dimpled chads”), and let a usually partisan hand-counter measure a voter’s “intent.”

    This became known as “having your vote count,” and since this re-definition of voting coincided with a state contest for decisive electoral votes that was ultimately decided by less than 600 votes, and the Supreme Court decided that there weren’t either the procedures or the time to determine the “intent” of all those voters who couldn’t be bothered to take the ten seconds necessary to make sure their choice was clear and unequivocal, the myth went forward: “Every vote wasn’t counted in the election!” This was nonsense. Every vote was counted twice. What weren’t counted, for the most part, were unsuccessful attempts at voting.

    Full disclosure: I botched my LSAT exam, which plays a large part in getting one into law school, because I inadvertently skipped over one of the multiple-choice, fill-in-the-box-with-a-Number-2-pencil questions about half way through. As a result, something like 50 answers were wrong because I was answering each question in the boxes below the proper ones. I discovered my error and furiously tried to erase and shift the erroneous answers, but ran out of time. Anyone looking at the computer card could easily see what had happened; my “intent” was clear as glass. But I still hadn’t designated the correct answers, and my score, a very disappointing one for me, reflected that fact. It never occurred to me, then or now, to claim that some giant injustice had been done, or that the testing service had an obligation to relieve me of the consequences of my own carelessness. But that is exactly what the Gore partisans arguedÂ…not merely argued, but self-righteously argued. Supported by a lot of inexplicably sympathetic (or just biased, take your pick) commentators, talking heads and columnists, the argument became widely accepted. In fact, it was a frontal assault on the ethical values of responsibility, fairness, and citizenship.

  • The second factor is an old one, the logical fallacy that unless one’s vote is decisive (that is, unless a contest is settled by one vote), it doesn’t matter. This is the age-old excuse of non-voters everywhere, and it is put into proper perspective by comparison with similar conclusions based on the same “logic,” such as, “Why take a breath? One breath doesn’t make any difference!”; “Go ahead and litter! Who’s going to notice a gum wrapper?” and “So shoplift the earrings! This is a big company; do you think they’ll miss a lousy fifteen bucks?” Do we really have to explain the principle of collective action this late in human history? Is it possible that ants and termites grasp a concept that we cannot? Every vote does count because it is only through the collective effect of many votes that we have a result at all. Kant’s principle of categorical imperatives is enlightening here: if an action is only right if you are willing to make it a universal standard, then not voting is obviously wrong. If nobody votes, we have no means of democratic governance. Yet, in 2004, there were a record number of writers, essayists and journalists who argued that not voting is rational, while voting is simply a leap of faith. Several of these appeared in the New York Times. Life imitating art, perhaps?

  • And here is the worst of all: in an explosion of unrestrained egomania and self-centeredness, an increasing number of voters in 2004 expressed outrage that the election was decided before their personal vote was recorded. Senator Kerry, faced with a multi-million vote deficit in the popular vote and realizing that the statistical chances of the uncounted votes in Ohio overcoming Bush’s lead there were rather less than the chances of an ice sculpture business joining Hell’s Chamber of Commerce, conceded. For this he was widely condemned, not because his math was wrong, but because Democratic hard-liners argued that the whole country should wait days or weeks to know who its president is just so that every “provisional” voter, absentee voter, and military voter could puff up his or her chest and say that their votes “counted.” Bulletin: the objective of a presidential election is to elect a president, and once that result is clear, its purpose has been accomplished. The election is not about the ego needs of any one individual voter. The lack of priorities, proportion and humility on the parts of voters who feel “cheated” because an unalterable election result is announced before their personal vote is recorded is a condition that responsible public figures and journalist should seek to cure with calm logic and education. Instead, too many are encouraging it.

One result of this three headed “virus” is that we now have a presidential election recount in Ohio, funded by two loose cannon third party presidential candidates (Libertarian Michael Badnarik and the Green Party’s David Cobb) and supported in principle by the formerly gracious loser, John Kerry, who approached a personal record of sorts by holding on to his original “no recount” pledge for almost two weeks. Cobb and Badnarik triggered the recount by raising $150,000 to meet the Ohio statutory requirements for what parties seeking recounts must pay, a bargain at $10 a precinct. In fact, this colossal waste of time will cost the state $1.5 million dollars, according to Ohio’s Secretary of State. And there is no way to be sure that a recount is any more accurate than the original count: when such large numbers are involved, errors always occur.

But it’s worth it, Cobb, Badnarik and Kerry tell us, worth it even though economically strapped Ohio has overwhelmed social services that could use $1.5 million very well. It is worth it because now we’ll know that “every vote counted.”


» The three parts of this series are:

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