A Chat with Lance deHaven-Smith
Al Gore really did beat George W. Bush in 2000. Six years on, this is still a problem?
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 presidential election.
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 SouthdeHaven-Smith lived between Florida and Georgia until his departure for graduate studies at Ohio Statehis 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 first place.
“I had another job offer at Case Western in Cleveland,” he says, “and then I went down to interviewthis 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 management.
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 bookand 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 chadswas 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 rampant.
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 discourseunless it’s corrected, unless elites start recognizing that they have a responsibility to maintain a democracy among themselveswe’re going to have a big problem.
RinR: So, what’s the overarching theme of The Battle for Florida?
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 thisit’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 happen again.
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 systemit’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 wouldn’t act.
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 thatthings 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 happened.
RinR: Throughout the book, you repeat that Florida’s election lawespecially 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 murkyin 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 clarified?
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 oneof people who were knowledgeable and active and interested and not really partisan.
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 factssuggesting he was “too democratic” to live in a Republic. Two thousand and some years later, what makes you think a majority of Americansor anybody else, for that matterwant 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.