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In election, all may not be fair, but it's legal

By Lorenzo Sadun
Austin American-Statesman
Friday, December 1, 2000

A few years ago, I saw a blackjack dealer hit 21 on five cards. One gambler whose cards totaled 20, complained "That's not fair!" The dealer agreed with a smile. "Nobody said this game was fair. Only honest."

In this election season we seem to have forgotten the difference between fairness and honesty, and between justice and legality. Democrats claim that Gov. George W. Bush's apparent victory in Florida, assisted by the "butterfly ballot," is unfair and unjust, and so it must be dishonest and illegal.

Republicans note that the ballot was designed by a Democrat and argue that Bush won legally and honestly, hence fairly. Both sides are half right. Bush's victory is both honest and unfair, and both unjust and legally binding.

The main fairness issue is the confusion in Palm Beach County. In 1996, there were 14,000 ballots that were not counted, either because they were punched twice or not at all. In 2000, there were 29,000 (19,000 punched twice and 10,000 not punched).

This is not just statistical fluctuation. All other things being equal, the number of spoiled ballots should only change by 100-200 each election. The probability of randomly going from 14,000 invalid ballots in 1996 to 29,000 in 2000 is out of the question. If those extra 15,000 confused voters had split 2-1 for Al Gore, he would have picked up 5,000 more votes than Bush, easily enough to win the state.

Then there are the 3,400 votes for Pat Buchanan. A thorough statistical analysis by Christopher Carroll of the Johns Hopkins University shows that this cannot be taken at face value. While some of those votes were intended for Buchanan, we are 99 percent sure that at least 2,000 Buchanan votes were not. Put it together, and it is clear that the intent of the greatest number of Florida voters was to cast a ballot for Gore. For Bush to come out with Florida's electoral votes is an injustice.

But unfair doesn't mean illegal. We have a "government of law, not of men," and certainly not of mind readers. According to the law, a vote that is meant for Gore but marked for Buchanan still counts for Buchanan.

The courts were right to grant Gore a manual recount in Palm Beach and Broward counties, but in the end there just weren't enough legally valid votes for Gore. Bush wins, period.

Bush's win is not only legal but honest. While both campaigns have behaved badly since the election, there were no credible accounts of fraud or intimidation in the election itself. Bush owes his victory to the butterfly ballot, not to Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris. (Her behavior, while outrageous, was ultimately ineffective.) Did you ever play Monopoly and get the card that says "Bank error in your favor. Collect $200"? Bush drew that card.

To heal our divisions, Democrats need to accept that George W. Bush is the president-elect. Republicans need to acknowledge that they are the beneficiaries of an electoral fluke, not the recipients of a public mandate. Democrats need to assume the role of loyal opposition, with emphasis on "loyal." Republicans need to find ways to share power, especially in the selection of the Cabinet and the management of the Senate. And all must avoid fighting words such as "sore loser" or "stolen election."

Sadun is an associate professor of mathematics at the University of Texas.

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