August 19, 2005

Krugman on Election Problems in 2000 and 2004

In his NY Times column today on election problems in 2000 and 2004, Paul Krugman, relying on a new book by Andrew Gumbel, says that Gumbel "documents the simple truth: 'Al Gore won the 2000 presidential election.' Two different news media consortiums reviewed Florida's ballots; both found that a full manual recount would have given the election to Mr. Gore. This was true despite a host of efforts by state and local officials to suppress likely Gore votes, most notably Ms. Harris's 'felon purge,' which disenfranchised large numbers of valid voters."

I have not yet had a chance to read Gumbel's book, but Krugman's statement is misleading. It is true that the NORC study found that had all the state's undervotes and overvotes been counted, Al Gore would have come out ahead of George Bush. But it is also true that Gore did not request such a count---he requested a count only of the undervotes, and only in certain counties. And, if I recall correctly, a statewide recount of the undervotes (what had been ordered by the Florida Supreme Court but stopped by the U.S. Supreme Court in its stay order in Bush v. Gore) also would have gone for Bush. It is also true that the NORC counters' views of which ballots counted for Gore depended in part on the partisan affiliation of the counters. (I review the literature on the count in this review essay.)

So what to make of the claim that Al Gore "really" won the election? I have a few reactions (again, not based upon anything new that might be in Gumbel's book):

1. It seems pretty clear, as Judge Posner acknowledged in his "Breaking the Deadlock" book, that more Florida voters intended to vote for Gore than for Bush. But not all of those voters translated their private intent into a valid vote that could be accurately counted using Florida's then-existing voting technology.

2. For all practical purposes, the Florida count was a statistical tie. Various commentators have summed the problem up by noting that the margin of error exceeded the margin of victory, or that counting the votes to get an accurate count was like trying to measure bacteria with a yardstick.

3. Given that the election was a statistical tie, one can point to a whole host of things that, had they gone slightly differently, would have likely put the election in Gore's hands. Among the more important "what ifs": (a) What if there had been no "butterfly ballot" in Palm Beach County? (b) What if Ralph Nader had not run, or been so successful in Florida, or had Nader voters known what was at stake with their votes? (c) What if a Democrat or a nonpartisan election official had been secretary of state? (d) What if overseas military ballots had been counted pursuant to Florida law as it existed in 2000 (on this point, one should not miss Diane Mazur's recent Election Law Journal article)? (e) What if there had been no errors in the purge of felons from Florida ballots? The list goes on.

4. From all of this, I don't think the question of who "really" won Florida (opposed from the legal conclusion that Bush won) is one that can be answered in any sensical way.

Krugman also makes claims about the vote being stolen in Ohio in 2004. From what I have seen so far (including the Conyers report), I am not convinced that intentional action by state officials cost John Kerry the vote in Ohio.

Posted by Rick Hasen at August 19, 2005 09:39 AM