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laura dern as kathryn harris recountMay 26, 2008

How a film about the mighty defeating the many can leave you feeling good and energized can only be ascribed to brilliant writing and direction, coupled with a perfect cast that included Kevin Spacey (Ron Klain) and Laura Dern (Katherine Harris). The film presents in rapid-fire the many ways voters are disenfranchised, and does so with humor and grit. Only one omission: the scientific study proving Gore won Florida.


REVIEW: Recount. Directed by Jay Roach. Currently airing on HBO.

No right is more precious in a free country than that of having a vote in the election of those who make the laws under which, as good citizens, we must live. Other rights, even the most basic, are illusory if the right to vote is undermined.

Williams v. Rhodes, 393 US 23, 30-31 (1968)

I thoroughly enjoyed Recount. It was pretty unforgiving of Repubs, hitting the multiple ways their strategy disenfranchised Dem voters, from pre-election tactics to post election legal strategy. Most of the ideas we’ve read about or covered in the past several years were raised in the film – it’s packed full of these ideas.

And it also lampooned the spineless strategy of top Dem leadership, another topic we’ve blogged much about. “Country above party” becomes an excuse to avoid the real battle – the powerful deciding what the people rightfully decide – who shall make the laws.

Recount had me busting a gut laughing at some of the acting comedically pulled off by Laura Dern, as Katherine Harris. Based on what Harris did, the movie was kind to only mock her.

Kevin Spacey turns any film he touches into gold. This time, he plays Ron Klain, Gore’s former chief of staff. A comedic moment with him happens when his sidekick (Dennis Leary) punches the air in victory, but connects with Spacey’s nose. However, Klain is mainly portrayed as an earnest man who still believes in democracy; there’s even a scene where someone comments, “You sound like you really believe that.”

The film abounds with numerous one-liners that had me cheering, even tho I knew the outcome.

The James Baker character held himself with dignity and met all my ideas of what the guy would be like in person. Well, mostly, since there was no creepy, Machiavellian edge to him in the film.

Actual news footage is used, as well as the actual quote by that West Palm Beach election official (Carol Roberts) who refused to follow Harris’ order to stop the recount. This is the full quote from a news conference with the Palm Beach Canvassing Board captured on film in Unprecedented: The 2000 Presidential Election (2002):

CAROL ROBERTS: This Board has now been mandated by Chief Election Officer of the State of Florida not to count the votes of the people of Palm Beach County.

Legal advisor from Harris’ office: You have an, a binding opinion from the Division of Elections.

CAROL ROBERTS: What happens? Do we go to jail? Because I’m willing to go jail.

Legal advisor: No, I, no, I just felt that…

Crowd cheers.

Link to Palm Beach Canvassing Board v. Katherine Harris

Because of the dozen or so election documentaries I’ve seen, much of this info was familiar to me. Several times during the film, I annoyed my family with, “this really happened, she really said that,” or “they really did that.”

The film showed the ease with which punch cards can be voided, thru negligent maintenance and poor ballot design, disenfranchising voters. It captured voter purges, and unequal distribution of quality machines. It showed Repub operatives rioting at the Miami-Dade Board of Elections office, also previously documented in election films.

They dug deep into the legal battles, suggesting that the reason Gore didn’t seek a recount in all of Florida’s counties was because each county had to be asked; it couldn’t be done on a statewide basis. Given time constraints, and Warren Christopher’s desire to avoid a messy legal battle, the Gore team finally agreed to recount only four counties. But, Warren, democracy is messy.

During the US Supreme Court challenge, someone discovered that in Texas, George Bush signed a law requiring that dimpled chads be counted. That position was unsuccessfully used against the Bush team in court, but speaks volumes to regular Americans watching the film: the rules of voter intent apply only when the powerful want them to apply.

Today, we all know about dimpled, pregnant and hanging chads. In 2000, we all learned about them at the same time, and the film captured this, connecting ordinary Americans with party elites.

That every vote be counted – as a matter of constitutional right – seemed lost on everyone but Ron Klain. The reality that political operatives will do whatever it takes to win, came thru repeatedly. The film showed how Dems didn’t want Jessie Jackson or the grassroots involved, but I can’t think of a bigger call to action: if Americans want their votes honestly counted, they must oversee the process.

Alas, it failed to inform the public that when all the votes were finally counted, by the University of Chicago, Gore handily won Florida.1

But the main point being made is a reality I discovered in my investigations: elections are decided by administrative rules and legal proceedings that have little to do with the will of the people.

Given that the film is about how we voters lost to the will of the powerful, it’s almost shocking to realize I walked away feeling good and energized, and ready to fight another battle. Best of all, I finally laughed, and laughed hard, about a subject that has reduced me to tears in the past four years.

Maybe that was the real point – the subliminal message is don’t give up – keep up the fight. Democracy is something you do, and right now, election integrity is where the battle is being waged.

Meanwhile, catch Recount; it’s worth the view on many levels, even if it didn’t mention the scientific recount which proved that the people of Florida did not elect Bush in 2000.

1See “Florida 2000: Begininngs of a Lawless Presidency” by Lance Dehaven-Smith in Mark Crispin Miller’s Loser Take All: Election Fraud and The Subversion of Democracy, 2000 – 2008. 

p. 51 “However, in 2001, every uncounted ballot was carefully examined in a scientific study by the University of Chicago, which found that when all the votes were counted, more votes had been cast for Gore than for Bush. The source of Gore’s winning margin resided in an unexpected place.” (7) 

p. 52 “Ironically, we now know that the outcome of the 2000 presidential election did not hinge on hanging chads. (undervotes) Gore’s winning margin was in an entirely different set of machine-rejected ballots—in what are now called “write-in overvotes.” These were ballots on which a selection had been made from the list of candidates and then a name had also been printed in the space for write-ins. Although write-in overvotes were automatically excluded by tabulating machines, they contained unambiguous and legally valid votes whenever the write-in candidate matched the candidate chosen form the list preceding it. In its comprehensive study of all the uncounted ballots, the University of Chicago found that write-in overvotes heavily favored Gore. Thus, a full recount would have determined unambiguously that Gore had won.” (8) 

(7) For a detailed review and analysis of the study’s data see Lance deHaven-Smith, “The Battle for Florida: An Annotated Compendium of Materials from the 2000 Presidential Election (Gainesville: the University Press of Florida, 2005). 

(8) deHave-Smith, pp. 38-42. See also, Steven F. Freeman and Joel Bleifuss, “Was the 2004 Presidential election Stolen? Exit Polls, election Fraud, and the Official Count, pp. 33-54.

Endnote research provided by Judy Conoyer of Missouri’s Show Me the Vote.