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Are Pregnant Chad Liberal?

Compassion for ballot bump-makers.


Posted Sunday, November 19, 2000

        What if Gore wins, but only because of "pregnant chad"--instances where a voter has failed to pierce the punch-card ballot, but where there is a little dimple where the Gore box was supposed to be poked out? As of Sunday evening, it certainly looks as if Gore can win only if these indented ballots are counted. Under stricter vote-counting standards--requiring, say, that the ballot have been pierced and two corners of the chad loosened--Gore simply won't have the numbers.

        Am I the only one who thinks a Gore victory, if it's produced by pregnant chad, will be troublesome for him? I know, I know: Many courts have over the years declared that such indented ballots should be counted if the "intent" of the voter can be discerned. I also know that in Texas George W. Bush signed a law that allows such ballots to be counted. I don't care. The question isn't what courts in other states have previously said (they can be mistaken) or whether Bush is a hypocrite (he is). Nor is the question which way the Florida Supreme Court will rule--the pundits have to pretend it's an open question, but I have little doubt this very liberal court will give Gore his pregnant chad.

        The question is whether counting "pregnant chad" is the right rule or the wrong rule--and if it's wrong, is it wrong in ways that would resonate with a more general critique of Gore? I fear the answers may be "wrong rule" and "yes."

        What could be the matter with counting bumps as votes? Two things, at least. First, the bump is ambiguous. It might mean the voter wanted to vote for the candidate. It might mean the voter started to vote for the candidate but then hesitated and pulled back.--a lot of voters, after all, chose to vote for no presidential candidate at all this year. We can argue whether the ambiguity is 90/10 in favor of a vote or 50/50--but it's still ambiguous in a way a chad hanging on by one corner isn't.

        Second, counting bumps forsakes an easy-to-enforce, bright-line rule (e.g.: either the chad is detached at two corners or it isn't) with a vague rule that looks at a variety of factors in attempting to assign "intent" to the voter. How big is the bump? What are the other marks on the ballot? Are there indentations for other races? Even--in the most tendentious Democratic formulation--did the voter vote for other candidates of the same party? This creates room for indecision, argument, litigation, bias, and inconsistency. Not what you want in a balloting system.

        Republicans, including Gov. Marc Racicot of Montana, h ave begun to blast away at the pregnant chad, making some of the above arguments. I predict they'll find that much of the public agrees with them. But the conservatives won't stop there. Theirs is a seamless worldview, and they're probably already incorporating the pregnant chad into it, along with Monica Lewinsky, Leopold and Loeb, and Dr. Spock. Permissive vote-counting rules, it will be argued, are of a piece with the permissive policies of liberal Democrats generally. It would be just like that liberal Florida Supreme Court to go soft on chad! You can already see where this is going.

        But the analogy of permissive chad-counting with traditional American liberalism, is of course ... well, it's actually fairly accurate. Here are three ways in which the "pregnant chad" cause is an apt synecdoche for the most easily caricatured features of traditional liberal thinking:

        1. Short-term "compassion" versus the long-term virtues of firmness: Advocates of permissive vote-counting give priority to an immediate, unmet human need--the need of the voter to have his or her voice effectively heard--over the benefits of establishing a tough, clear rule and sticking to it, benefits (efficiency, fewer disputes) that will only be realized over the long run. Similarly, liberal antipoverty advocates tend to believe it's more important to meet the material needs of poor Americans now rather than, say, deny unwed mothers aid in the belief that fewer women will, in the long run, decide to become unwed mothers. The two arguments aren't really closely comparable; they're precisely comparable.

        2. Victimhood versus personal responsibility: The poor voter, confused by the voting apparatus, too weak to forcefully thrust a stylus, needs help from the government to express himself, say the Gore forces--a view that is compassionate and also a bit condescending. "Voters are responsible for their own actions and the consequences of those actions," say the Republicans. Ditto drug users, welfare mothers, public schools, etc.

        3. Judicial power versus political power: A hard-and-fast "two-corner" chad-counting rule tends to leave the decision with local canvassing boards. What's to argue? A vaguer, more subjective rule that requires a holistic (if not near-Jungian) look at the entire ballot tends to give judges an opening to second-guess local officials. The Massachusetts Delahunt case, for example--a leading precedent cited by Gore's bump-counters--was finally decided when a judge took the ballots back to chambers and returned with a winner. Of course, preference for judicial power over political power isn't a principle inherent in liberal politics--during the early New Deal, the preference was reversed. But it is a preference American liberals have become comfortable with in the past few decades, and conservatives have had great success beating them up for it.

        That's the looming problem for Al Gore. If he wins by means of counting bumps, not only will he be subject to widespread ridicule on the merits of this procedure, but that ridicule will resonate with the general Republican portrayal of Gore as an old-style, soft-minded lib. That portrayal is inaccurate in many respects, but it's a portrayal Gore gave credence to with his pandering, populesque campaign.

        It's possible the attack would do President Gore real damage. It's also possible the attack would be good for New Democrats, prompting the shaky new president to take dramatic steps to shed his "permissive" aura. But either way, it will be a fair attack for the right to make.

        [What if the Florida situation were reversed, and Bush needed "pregnant chad" to win? Any doubt that he'd be in court whining about poor weak voters having their "intent" thwarted?--Ed. No doubt at all. Bush has already demonstrated heroic hypocrisy by filing a federal voting-rights lawsuit (against manual recounts) so sweeping and far-fetched even the ACLU hasn't thought of it. But so what? The point, again, isn't that Bush isn't a hypocrite. The point is that attacking Gore, in this instance, would be a (perhaps rare) case of nonhypocrisy.]

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Is Robert Wright a Marxist?

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