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Thrilling! But No Sequel, Please

Posted: 05/23/08 01:56 PM ET

I just sat through a nail-biting, emotionally exhausting two hour TV movie.  The opening ten minutes were especially nerve-wracking.  The film begins with elderly Floridians squinting at their butterfly ballots, then stabbing at the , scary music playing, over and over, as they vote by accident for Pat Buchanan.  Think of the shower scene in Psycho with your grandmother instead of Janet Leigh. Even more exciting: would the panting, lurching advance man catch up with Al Gore before he walked onstage to concede?

Maybe not everybody would find this as thrilling.  But Recount, which airs on HBO this Sunday, is one of the better political movies I've ever seen.  It "gets" the motives and methods of political players better than anything in years.  More relevant to the work of the Brennan Center, it brings to life the ways our elections can go wrong, and the rickety and often corrupt machinery by which we still cast and count votes.

(Full disclosure: I am an old colleague and friend of Ron Klain, the protagonist; I see GOP lawyer Ben Ginsberg at the beach many summers; and I go duck hunting with James Baker every year.  Well, that part isn't true. But like anyone involved in politics, back then I had a rooting interest in the outcome of the recount.) 

The narrative crackles and does a good job portraying the legal machinations that led to the Supreme Court's 5-4 intervention to stop the counting, thus making George W. Bush President.  It's all here, from the "Brooks Brothers riot" in which Republican congressional staffers shut down the counting in Miami, to the frenzied efforts to read and understand the Supreme Court opinion that announced its reasoning only applied to this case.  The acting is terrific, and the dialogue is sharp and as profane as real life politics (and HBO).

More relevant to today, Recount shows the scary and appalling flaws in the election itself, before the world ever heard of a "hanging chad."  One example: the lawyers discover with horror that Florida has purged 20,000 suspected felons from the rolls, many of whom were actually fully eligible to vote.  Not surprisingly, the voting machine problems turn out to be worse in poorer counties.  Election administration is rife with partisanship and amateurism.  Even the flaws in ballot design are well portrayed.  It is a little known fact that across America, counties each design their own ballots.  The well-meaning but hamfisted effort to make the type large enough for elderly voters led to the butterfly ballot.  In all, in 2000, according to the best study, millions of votes were lost in Florida and elsewhere due to bad voter lists and problems with the polls.

There has been some progress since then, but we are far from running a sleek electoral machine. The new electronic machines that replaced creaky Votomatics are far more at risk for fraud, without audits and a paper trail.  There are now statewide voter lists, which is good, but they are prone to error - over the past two years, the Brennan Center has worked to keep states from disenfranchising hundreds of thousands due to typos on the lists. And we still place far too much of the burden on voters to get and stay registered.  The Florida governor who replaced Jeb Bush, Republican Charlie Crist, took strong steps to curb felony disenfranchisement there, but many people who should be able to vote cannot.  Much needs to be done to move toward universal voter registration, where the government makes sure every eligible citizen can vote, and every vote is properly counted.  

Recount is a terrific film. But I'm not craving a sequel.