IS YOUR VOTE A CONTRACT WITH THE GOVERNMENT?: Form Over Substance in the Supreme Court's Election Decision


Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2000

Critics of the decision in Bush v. Gore have faulted the five-justice majority for hypocrisy. Many have asked how these Justices' prior claims of allegiance to the principles of "judicial restraint" and "states' rights" can possibly be squared with the aggressive federal intervention that they used to determine the outcome of the 2000 presidential election.

These attacks are clearly warranted. However, there actually is a consistent (though misguided) legal principle behind the Justices' decision–or, at least, behind the concurring opinion by Chief Justice Rehnquist that was joined by the court's other two reactionaries, Justices Scalia and Thomas. That legal principle comes, surprisingly, not from the high-flown world of constitutional legal theory, but rather, from contract law, one of the most pedestrian of legal disciplines.

Are Voting Instructions A Contract?

Chief Justice Rehnquist's concurring opinion, having explained why this is the one and only case where deference to a state's highest court is inappropriate, turns to the question of the uncounted votes. The Chief Justice points out that there are explicit instructions in all voting booths that use punch card ballots, which read as follows: "After voting, check your ballot card to be sure your voting selections are clearly and evenly punched and there are no chips left hanging on the back of the card." He goes on to claim that "no reasonable person" could say that it is inappropriate to ignore ballots that are "not marked in the manner that these voting instructions explicitly and prominently specify."

Williston and Langdell — the high priests of classical contract doctrine— couldn't have said it better! If the contract (here, the set of voting instructions) says that your vote will be counted only if you meet certain criteria, and you do not meet those criteria, then your vote will not be counted. Q.E.D. A deal is a deal.

Put another way, the contract said you were supposed to flick off the hanging chads and make sure you had not left any mere dimples; but you, careless voter, never bothered to do so. So too bad for you — and for your candidate.

The Evolution of Law Away From Contract Formalism

Of course, it's not that simple. Indeed, the path of contract law over the past century has been largely a move away from such formalism.

This has resulted in a somewhat grudging (at least in some quarters) recognition that, in some circumstances, it is reasonable to enforce contracts that do not meet formal requirements. Why? Because, for example, it is often possible to determine the "intent of the parties" indirectly, rather than just from the formal language they used to describe their intent.

Another result has been a parallel recognition that, in other circumstances, it is unreasonable to enforce contracts that do meet formal requirements. Why? Because, for example, the court may have concerns about whether the terms were sufficiently clear to the party who did not draft the contract, or may feel that the exigencies of the situation required a party to act in understandable haste and sign a contract she should not later be held to, and so on, and so on.

Obviously, this path away from formal contract requirements, and towards more situation-specific analyses, has not been a smooth one. And people like Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justices Scalia and Thomas have always regretted the movement of modern contract doctrine away from simplistic formalisms (You signed the contract!) toward a recognition of situational ambiguities (I was not fully informed! I was compelled! I was confused! It was hidden in small print!). As Justice Scalia once put it in a related context, with typical bluntness: "Long live formalism!"

Treating the Voting Instructions as a Contract with the Voter

The evolution of the law away from the type of formalism that provides the backdrop to the three-Justice concurrence was driven by a simple fact: No contract can be as simple, clear, and unambiguous as the formalists claim. Interpretation and clarification are almost always necessary, simply because no written contract can account for all potential sources of disagreement and misunderstanding. Looking more carefully at the voting instructions cited by Chief Justice Rehnquist, it is therefore not at all surprising that these instructions are much more ambiguous than he believes.

What if a voter does not know what a "chip" is? And, after the card is pulled out of the holder, how is the voter even to tell whether there are holes punched in the right places on a card with no writing on it? Were the instructions really placed "explicitly and prominently," in a visible place in a typeface that could be read by all voters (even those with poor eyesight, who at last check were still eligible to vote)?

To all of these questions, classical contract doctrine had a simple answer: If you do not find out the answers on your own, it is your own fault that your vote was not counted. In other words, protect your own interests! And if you don't, beware.

Why Classical Contract Formalism Doesn't Work For Voting

According to this view, every voter must now become an expert on ballot procedures. But if enough people actually took the time and care necessary to effectuate the Rehnquist vision of responsible voting, the process would surely slow to a crawl. This would likely cause more people to "choose" not to vote (a choice that formalists, ironically, would view as dispositive evidence that the would-be voter's intent was never to vote in the first place — rather than, say, evidence that many people fear being fired if they take too much time away from work to vote).

What if you ask the precinct worker whether your ballot meets the standards, but the precinct worker gives you incorrect information — or simply refuses, or is too busy, to clarify? And how can you even ensure that the "contract" is enforced — that is, that your vote is counted once you have met all the requirements? Surely after all the work Rehnquist would require, the voter ought to have some assurance that the government will uphold its side of the contract.

These are exactly the types of questions that led to the emergence of modern contract doctrine, which substantially modified (if not eviscerated) classical contract formalism. Recognition that rigid rules can easily be used to hurt the powerless motivated much of the movement away from formalism and towards more flexible rules. (The very same recognition, one might suggest, may motivate Rehnquist, Scalia, and Thomas to suggest a return to it).

Rigid rules are not likely to hurt the wealthy, well-educated, time-rich voter (or contract-signer). They are going to hurt the less-educated, hard-working voter who cares enough to vote, but cannot risk dallying forever at the polls or has trouble with instructions that require mastery of the previously obscure distinction between a chip and a chad (if, indeed, such a distinction exists). And when formal rules do hurt the powerful, they make up new rules–or install better voting technology in their own precincts.

Parallels Between Flexible, Modern Contract Doctrine and Florida's Election Code

Modern contract doctrine is admittedly fraught with ambiguities (indeed, some would say that it revels in those ambiguities). It requires "reasonable" actions in particular circumstances, thus applying an inherently variable, fact-specific standard. Moreover, it is tailored to the differing sophistication of the parties and the differing stakes involved: Contracts for commercial real estate rentals, for example, are subject to very different rules than, say, contracts for surrogate motherhood.

Fortunately, the Florida election code already acknowledges the inherent impossibility of totally objective ballot counting. Therefore, it explicitly provides that votes cannot be thrown out (even if they were not readable by machines) if the intent of the voter can reasonably be determined. In other words, the Florida election laws parallel modern contract doctrine — providing a variable, fact-specific "reasonableness" standard to encompass a wide variety of possible situations, from chad to chip, with every variety of shred of punch card and voter marking in between.

Now, if the three reactionary Justices who joined the Rehnquist concurrence were truly believers in judicial restraint, they would have admitted that they do not like modernism (in any of its forms, apparently), but they nonetheless would have affirmed that Florida's election code as written does not begin and end with the classical "caveat emptor" requirement that the voter protect herself. Restraint, in this situation, would have meant admitting that Florida's election law standard is a modern, flexible one — not a rigid, classical one.

Notably, the situation is not symmetric. In other words, even a restrained judiciary might still feel compelled to relax the boundaries of a formal election law, in order to protect the fundamental right to vote that arises once a state has decided to hold an election. Thus, if the Florida election laws had been written as rigidly as Rehnquist, et al. would have liked them to be, and had essentially codified the voter instructions, then large groups of people would have been disenfranchised — and the U.S. Supreme Court would have been justified in stepping in to correct the resulting inequality.

If the rigid standards of the Florida instructions really were the law, then the voting process would include an implicit literacy test — and such tests have been illegal for a long time now. Indeed, on some ballots, basic literacy will not even suffice. Figuring out the spatial and diagrammatic arrangement of names (on butterfly ballots, most famously), and deciphering less-than-obvious placement of referenda questions on ballots (as had recently happened in New York State), require more than the minimal skills a literate person has. And we should not forget that illiterate citizens do have the very same right to vote as those more fortunate others who received a better education.

In some cases, therefore, applying classical formalism — in the form of rigid voting instructions that discard votes as to which the intended candidate choice is clear — actually would present an equal protection problem. The more voting resembles taking the LSAT (an experience even law students, who've chosen the profession, would hate to repeat), the more people will be disenfranchised.

Formalists can always fall back on the retort "What, they can't follow simple directions?" But the rest of us know that it is never that simple. If we really want "the people" to vote, we must take the people as we find them.

In some cases, we will never know what the voter meant to say; but when we can figure it out, Florida's election law tells us that we must count the vote. That is the real contract between the people and their would-be leaders.

Neil H. Buchanan, Ph. D., is an economist at the University of Michigan. He is also a second year student at Michigan's law school.

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