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  • Of Mobs and Machines:Remembering the 2000 Florida Recount in 2004
  • Vanessa B. Beasley (bio)

Political analysts like to speculate about what presidential elections mean. The 1992 election was famously about "the economy, stupid," for example, with some observers arguing that the 1996 election was, too. The 2000 election was likewise thought to be the result of "Clinton fatigue," with 2004 cast as a culture war between "red states and blue states." In these discussions commentators play games of amateur semiotics, linking sign, thought, and reference in ways that are supposed to capture nothing less than the national zeitgeist. Yet we are typically less likely to talk about how presidential elections are represented in another sense—that is, how they are represented as behavioral enactments of democracy in the United States.

To be sure, U.S. journalists commonly report on how democracy is performed in other countries. During the historic Iraqi elections of 2005, there was no shortage of visual and verbal imagery of individuals eagerly waiting in line to cast votes, with the triumphant blue-inked index finger quickly becoming an iconic representation of this event. Within coverage of U.S. elections, for some reason it seems more important for armchair commentators to talk about the election as a referendum on ideas than it is to discuss the actual behaviors that constitute democracy, voting chief among them.

For any behavioralists troubled by such tendencies, there was hope in 2000. The Florida recount made both the act of voting and the process of vote tabulation interesting indeed. Consider the many images reported in print [End Page 679] and broadcast journalism: the exasperated election officials, the rows of bleary-eyed state employees carefully scrutinizing hanging chads, the candidates themselves trying to look preternaturally relaxed at all times, and, of course, the protestors in the streets. Most memorable, perhaps, were the Jewish senior citizens of Palm Beach County as well as the African American residents throughout Florida who took to the streets to tell outraged stories of confusion, intimidation, and dilution at the polls.

What became of such images and, perhaps even more importantly, such deeply held feelings in 2004? Put differently, how was the Florida recount remembered during the next presidential election? Such questions are important because, as Barbie Zelizer has noted, "[r]emembering becomes implicated in a range of other activities having as much to do with identity formation, power and authority, cultural norms and social interaction as with the simple art of recall."1 Viewed in terms of both its sociological and symbolic potential for identity formation, for example, the Florida recount might have been a powerful rallying cry for Jewish and African American citizens in 2004. Likewise, the recount could have been recalled by any manner of citizens' advocacy groups in 2004 as a painful but motivating reminder of just how nakedly elite political power operated in 2000, from Tallahassee all the way to the Supreme Court.

Although the Florida recount may have been remembered in these ways within some venues in 2004, my analysis of specific references to the 2000 recount within mainstream media coverage suggests that something else may have also been going on. Within coverage of at least one influential source for political news in the United States, the Washington Post, the focus was not on the mobs and the attendant confusion surrounding Election 2000, but instead on the machines that would be used in 2004 to resolve such problems. Thus, instead of invoking the 2000 recount as a reminder of the importance of the full enfranchisement of all eligible voters in 2004, writers for the Post repeatedly recalled the 2000 recount as primarily the result of bad technology, a wake-up call for the update of an obsolete system. In what follows, I offer a few textual examples to illustrate this emphasis and then discuss why it matters.

Technology-oriented recollections of the Florida recount appeared frequently in the Post before the 2004 election. "[F]or all the obvious comparisons to the days of recounts and dimpled chads," staff writers noted on November 1, 2004, "the Florida of 2004 is a very different place from the Florida of 2000, even as polls show the...


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