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Brad Friedman

Brad Friedman

Posted: May 28, 2008 06:22 PM

HBO's Recount Gets It (Mostly) Right, Even if America Didn't (and Still Doesn't)


A retelling of Florida's 2000 election debacle condenses 36 days of aborted democracy into 2 hours of taut, heartbreaking political suspense, yet almost all lessons continue to be ignored...

I don't mind admitting it. For an Election Integrity journalist, HBO's Recount is pure pornography. Anticipation for Sunday's Memorial Day premiere showing was at the top of last weekend's holiday agenda. And the excitement grew still more late Friday when the good folks of PDA Florida made my week (my month? my year? my last four eight years?) by sending me an actual Palm Beach County "CES Votomatic III" voting booth, one which they tell me was among the 24 used in HBO's film itself.

Since I have a very difficult time paying the bills around here -- contrary to popular opinion, election integrity blogging isn't the windfall it might otherwise appear -- perhaps I'll consider the kind gift a reward for my too-many years on this beat. Though perhaps my consolation prize would be a better way to look at it.

When I first opened it, actual chads (HBO's film advises the plural of "chad" is actually "chad") from the 2000 election spilled out of the machine all over the office floor. The gods of democracy and the goddess of the butterfly ballot were taunting me. I rather enjoyed it. I learned long ago that I'd have little choice.

So it was with great anticipation that I sat down on Sunday night to watch the film as it premiered, along with the "Diebold Document Whistleblower" (and my new colleague at VelvetRevolution.us) Steven Heller and his wife, and Robert Carillo Cohen, one of the filmmakers of HBO's landmark documentary, the Emmy-nominated Hacking Democracy which enjoyed a re-airing earlier in the day, as the cable net set the stage for its newest democracy thriller/heart-breaker, Recount.

None of us, including Heller, who anticipated hating the fictionalized re-telling of America's crushing democratic abortion of 2000, would be disappointed.

As it turns out, HBO seems to have gotten just about all of it right from a factual standpoint. At least from the perspective of someone who followed those extraordinary 36 days incredibly closely both during and since, as the country hung in limbo as if, yes, dangling by a chad. There was quite a bit of nuance packed in to the two fast-paced hours, even down to the dirty machinations of Florida's corrupt and soulless Rep. Tom Feeney who played a minor, but key role in both the film and the stolen election.

Getting it right, or close to it, is apparently no small feat, since even the New York Times, the "paper of record", was unable to do so even in their review of the film, seven years after they covered the actual events, and six years after they correctly wrote, "If all the ballots had been reviewed under any of seven single standards...Mr. Gore would have won."

Never mind history though, now for the Times it's the revisionistic: "Mr. Bush would have come out slightly ahead, even if all the votes counted throughout the state had been re-tallied." (For the record, the Times was right six years ago, here's the evidence [PDF], and wrong last week.)

While time has done few favors for the Times, the historical distance, and time-compression of the two hour film, managed to capture the thrilling, exhausting and disappointing back and forth, up and down roller coaster of the original saga -- while identifying the players who deserve much of the thanks for the failure to count every vote accurately, as per the voters' intent, or even at all -- in what was finally democracy lost.

Among the players targeted for failing to ensure the proper administration of democracy: then-Democratic Vice-Presidential nominee Joe Lieberman, who the film identifies as having almost single-handedly allowed hundreds of military ballots to be counted for George W. Bush despite any evidence whatsoever that any of them were actually cast prior to the close of polls on November 7th, 2000.

While I had been aware of the Gore campaign foolishly rolling over to the cynical and opportunistic GOP attempts to bully them, by painting them as anti-troop -- based on their eventually-abandoned premise that all counted ballots should actually be legal ones -- I hadn't drawn a direct bead on Lieberman for blowing that call.

If the filmmakers were accurate in that depiction, then it looks like one of John McCain's biggest supporters in 2008 had been undermining Democratic White House ambitions long ago.

Given the film's familiar outcome, no small amount of credit is due the filmmakers who were able to succeed in having a room of jaded (understatement) election buffs still rooting for the good guys to pull it out this time around. (Without giving too much away, they didn't. Gore was still named the loser, despite having received more votes in Florida in 2000 than Bush [PDF], even after tens of thousands of legal minority voters were excluded from voting at all, merely because their names sounded something like others who had purportedly been convicted of a felony at one time or another.)

The result: a taut, often hilarious, consistently engaging, still-maddening and sick-making political thriller. History would thank you for watching it. Again and again.

While the cast was largely superb, and the casting spot-on, there was one character who we were glad to see named, but who was slightly miscast.

That would be our old friend, the entirely corrupt, then-boss of the FL House, Tom Feeney who was, as history, documentation and polygraph test tell us, just finishing up with an attempt at having a piece of vote-rigging software created by a South Florida computer firm where he worked as general counsel and registered lobbyist, even while serving as speaker of Florida's Legislature. And, oh yes, he had previously served as Jeb Bush's running-mate during his first attempt to become the Sunshine State's governor. So Feeney has been a long time Friend of the Bush's, and he was in the front lines to award the state, voters be damned, to his Bush pals come hell, high-water or even results showing Bush received fewer votes in the state.

The infamous sleaze of the man -- he's portrayed cahooting with the Bush campaign and steamrolling the Florida House into legislation that would seat Bush's electors no matter the decisions of either the FL or US Supreme Courts -- comes through in thuggish spades. He's shown doing what he does best (lying to the media), even if the actor who portrays him (Antoni Corone) is a large, burly fellow rather than the puny, pathetic little figure/tool of a man that Feeney actually is.

But that's rather small potatoes, as we appreciated the filmmakers having pulled out the accurate, if oft-overlooked, illustration of a man and a party willing to put power and politics far before country.

The rest of the cast was largely spot on. Laura Dern, in our opinion, actually underplayed the role of walking caricature, FL SoS Katherine Harris, who's seen awaking into her dream role as the ultimate GOP power broker able to hand the "victory" to Bush in Florida, while advised by the ever-present Republican lobbyist J.M. "Mac the Knife" Stipanovich (Bruce McGill), who somehow was able to obtain direct access to the inner-sanctum office of the SoS/Co-chair of Bush's Florida campaign.

That Dern actually underplayed the role -- despite having brought so much camp, the only thing missing was a tent, a sleeping bag and a flashlight -- is a point made strikingly clear during the film's closing credits as shots of the actual historical players, just portrayed in the film, flash by in dreadful reminder that what we just saw was, sadly, all too real. The actual Harris, far more camped-out and tramped-out then anyone could possibly play "credibly", is seen, on horseback, celebrating her rich post-election theft reward as a new U.S. Congresswoman (only to fall in disgrace just one Congressional session later), out-camping Dern hands down and breasts up.

While Steve Heller was unable to watch much of the film without it driving him crazy (yes, he and his wife would pay a great personal price for this administration's anti-democratic electioneering some years later, as he was forced to fend off felony charges for having been instrumental in revealing that Diebold Inc.'s powerful Republican law firm, Jones Day was instructing the voting machine company on how they might avoid their own criminal charges for lying to the state of California about having secretly and illegally installed uncertified hardware and software in 2004), his wife Michelle was enthralled by the breathless ups and downs of the contest as it played out in the film.

An election junkie herself during the ensuing years, given her husband's key role in successfully taking on the giants of Diebold and Jones Day in 2004, if only temporarily, she hadn't followed those infamous 36 days quite as closely when they actually played out. She had no idea, until watching the film, that it had been as insane as all of that. It was.

Yes, the very real back and forths and ups and downs in the real life saga were as impossibly stunning when they occurred in real time, perhaps even more so, as they come across during the two hour depiction. I can imagine no Indiana Jones film with as many gasp-inducing twists and turns as this story when it actually played out back in 2000, and even during its HBO re-telling. But remember, this is pornography to guys like me.

(Another Election Integrity junkie, Utah's Barbara Bellows TerraNova is a bit more critical, and not without reason, for a few important points the film either didn't get exactly right, or otherwise omitted entirely. Read her less laudatory take on Recount here.)

Hacking Democracy's Rob Cohen seemed similarly impressed after we watched it together. He was justifiably pleased that his all-to-real documentary film, which begins with the scuttled 2000 recount, may have helped pave the way at HBO for the Recount theatrical film.

Both films cover the -16,022 votes (that's negative 16,022 votes) that were discovered as tallied for (actually against) Al Gore on optical-scan voting systems in Volusia County, Florida. That negative number would lead to Gore's original concession on Election Night, followed by his infamous un-concession an hour or so later after the "error" was discovered.

More on that machine, and Volusia's continuing use of them, even still in 2008, was published by M.C. Moewe at Daytona News-Journal over the weekend. Moewe has been diligently trying to get to the bottom of that failure in Diebold's op-scan system for years. She writes in her article this weekend, which used Recount to help further the largely untold and almost wholly un-investigated story of those negatives votes in Volusia:

In Volusia County, the same "crazy" optical scan machines that delivered Gore's negative vote total are still in use.

The negative votes in 2000 could have been caused by four problems according to internal e-mails written by the machine's manufacturer, then called Global Election Systems. A corrupt memory card, an invalid read from a good card, corruption of memory or a card from an "un-authorized source."

Students at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania won a court battle to keep the e-mails public.

If it was a memory card failure problem, those issues still plague elections here.
...
The agency charged by law to act as a clearinghouse for information on voting systems nationwide, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, said in November that it could not tell local election officials about the potential problem because a state or local agency had not yet told them.

They still have not been informed, said Commission spokesman Bryan Whitener.

"There is not the slightest bit of authority that this agency has to get information," Whitener said.

Whitener's comments, of course, are nonsense. There is nothing in the EAC's mandate from the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) -- which created the agency, in part, to serve as a clearinghouse for voting system problems -- that would disallow them from informing states about problems, such as the one that still remains on Diebold op-scan systems littered across the country.

Moewe further informs us, chillingly...

To figure out what happened [back in Volusia in 2000], the "second" memory card must be found, according to an e-mail dated Jan. 18, 2001, addressed from Talbot Iredale, who is still with Diebold. "I do know that there were two uploads from two different memory cards," according to the e-mail. "The second one is the one I believe caused the problem. They were uploaded on the same port aprox. 1 hour apart."

Moewe's husband, Rogers Cadenhead, a computer programmer who blogged quickly about his wife's article this weekend, states the obvious: "As a programmer, I've never understood how Diebold's voting software accepted negative votes and lowered a candidate's total. You'd think the logical impossibility would've caused the input to be rejected before it altered the course of American history."

"Logic" had little to do with anything in Florida 2000, of course. And that failure in Florida would, apparently, recommend those voting machines made by Global Election Systems (GES) to Diebold, Inc., who is similarly less than concerned about "logic" or security, it seems.

Hacking Democracy goes on to explain that Diebold, shortly after the 2000 election, would acquire GES, the company whose voting system "failed" that night in Volusia. Neither film is able to definitively explain exactly what happened to cause the miscount, which became the basis for Bush's cousin at Fox "News" calling the state for Dubya late on Election Night, followed quickly by Gore's "concession", and later, the argument made to the Supreme Court that Bush would be "irreparably harmed" if votes were allowed to be counted since the media had already declared him the "winner".

The documentary film proceeds to reveal that our system is just as vulnerable to hacking and/or error today -- and this coming November -- as it was back then. It also offers some rather startling evidence for what may have caused that 2000 "anomaly" which has, as Moewe detailed, never been explained by the state of Florida, Diebold, or anybody else.

So what will horrify you about the election system as seen in Recount, is only multiplied when Hacking Democracy informs you that little has changed...other than things becoming arguably much worse now than they were back then.

Machines similar or identical to the ones that failed on Election Night in Florida, and the ones that Tom Feeney (who is now a U.S. Congressman) allegedly attempted to arrange vote-stealing software for, would be deployed across the entire country thanks to the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002, legislation created by felonious Republican Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio and other jailed cronies, in purported reaction to the 2000 debacle.

Hacking Democracy's Cohen pointed out to me that when they first went to HBO with their documentary, they were told the cable behemoth stayed away from political films. But that was, perhaps, 20 or 30 Bush approval points ago.

While we're tens of thousands of dead bodies later, there will never be the apologies due from the Republicans (including those on the U.S. Supreme Court) who tragically put party and power over country in Florida in 2000, and the Democrats who allowed it to happen.

As Kevin Spacey's character Ron Klain, who headed the recount for Gore's team, says tearily into the phone near the end of Recount -- the actor, clearly informed by the 7 years of carnage that have occurred since then -- he "just couldn't get 'em counted, Mr. Vice President."

HBO could not have picked a more tragically appropriate day, Memorial Day, to premiere their new film. It will be airing constantly over the next several days and via OnDemand. Please try to see it, and share it with as many folks, Right, Left and Center, that you possibly can. You owe it to both history and the future. We all do.

Cross-posted at The Brad Blog.

Brad Friedman is an investigative journalist who covers a great deal of issues concerning Election Integrity. He is also the creator/editor of The BRAD BLOG.

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