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Michael Waldman Headshot

Thrilling! But No Sequel, Please

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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.