A Political Season of Discontent
How badly did the 2000 election damage our democracy?
Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half the people are right more than half the time.
E. B. White
The 2000 Presidential election was the closest in American History. While Al Gore won the nationwide popular vote, that is largely irrelevant. The U. S. Constitution mandates that Presidential election be accomplished on a state-by-state basis, and various provisions of federal and state law detail procedures for that election. In the 2000 election, there were many anomalies in state elections, but because of the number of electoral votes held by large states, the outcome of Florida's election trumped all the other contests, and determined the election.
Essentially, Florida was a tie. George W. Bush's official lead over Al Gore was less than 1/100 of one percent of the votes cast. In numerical terms, for every 10,000 Gore voters in Florida, there were 10,001 Bush voters. Of course that margin results from the tally of Floridians whose votes were actually counted. Many thousands of Florida ballots were not included in the official results, for a variety of reasons.
Why does it matter? There are many reasons. Our democracy doesn't make provisions for a tie. Somebody wins and assumes office. That person exercises the authority of all the people—those who agree with and support his policies—and those who don't. The people must believe that their leaders exercise power at the people's behest; that is the essential cornerstone of our democracy. Often the voice of the people is clear and unequivocal, but often it is not. When the people are closely divided, as they were across the land in the fall of 2000, it is essential that they believe in the outcome. All must believe that the integrity of the democracy is intact and that the leader was indeed chosen by the people.
Unfortunately, it is difficult for us to have that faith in the legitimacy of our new President. He officially won the electoral contest, his victory determined by the votes of a few hundred Floridians. He is the President. Of course, there was the matter of the abortive recounts. The U. S. Supreme Court stopped in mid-process, the recount efforts requested by Al Gore. Those recounts were intended to tally undervotes—ballots on which no presidential vote was detected by the machine counts. That doesn't mean that all those ballots had no presidential vote. It is true that most of them didn't show a presidential vote at all. However, many ballots had clear indications of the voter's intent to vote for a presidential candidate, but were not marked in a manner that could be machine-read.
Hand counts of these ballots were requested in only four Florida counties, in what seems to have been a strategic mistake by the Gore forces. We have now learned, via a serious and careful study conducted by The Miami Herald and others, that had those four Florida counties been recounted, Bush would have won Florida by an even greater margin than he received in the official count. However, if the undervotes in all of Florida's counties had been counted, Gore would have won by a substantial margin.
So, people went to the polls on November 7th of last year and made a choice. But their votes didn't count. Three events, unconnected with the choice of the people, determined the outcome.
1: The antiquated punch-card ballot system used in much of Florida didn't allow counting with a reasonable level of accuracy.
2: A faulty strategic decision by the Gore team concentrated vote recounts in the wrong areas. And
3: The U. S. Supreme Court stopped the counting process short of completion.
We still don't know, however, how Floridians actually voted. All of the attention of the past months has been directed at undervoted ballots, those that didn't have a machine-readable presidential vote. What hasn't been counted anywhere is the overvoted ballots. Those are ballots that, when machine counted, show votes for more than one presidential candidate. There are many thousands of these ballots, too. As with undervoted ballots, most truly are spoiled ballots. They clearly show two presidential votes, and have no discernable indication of the voter's intent. But, as with undervotes, many ballots do clearly show the voter's intent when examined by a person rather than by a machine. A new effort by The Miami Herald and its research partners is designed to tell us what result would have ensued if the overvotes had been counted.
Ultimately, we will have a reasonably clear picture of how Floridians actually voted last November. When we do, that picture may tell us that the flawed processes of November and December led us to the correct result, that George W. Bush was the legitimate victor in our constitutionally prescribed electoral process. Or it may show us the opposite. It may reveal that ineptitude, dereliction, and even chicanery have given us a President who was, in fact, never chosen by his constituent citizens.
Chicanery? Perhaps. By mid-morning of November 8th, the day after the election, two things were clear: that the Florida election would be contested, and that in that process, no Florida lawyers would be working for Al Gore. One major Florida firm had decided to remove itself from the fray, and represent neither candidate. All other major firms—all the available firms with expertise in Florida election law—were committed to the Bush legal team. That included at least one major firm with a clear history of working for the Democratic Party. There is reason to believe that Jeb Bush, George W's brother, and Governor of Florida had pressured all the major firms to distance themselves from Gore. Is it possible that Gore and his team would have adopted a different recount strategy if they had been advised by an all-star team of Florida lawyers? Of course, it's possible. It is likely.
There have been crooked elections and crooked counts in America through all its history. The shenanigans in Florida are not new artifacts on the political landscape. That doesn't matter, though. We're supposed to be better than that. My vote is supposed to count. And the vote of a Black grandmother in a poor Florida neighborhood is supposed to count. That's what democracy means.
Jeb Bush's vote is supposed to count, too—but only once. No Governor and no son of a former president, not with all the lawyers in the nation, not even with help from the Supreme Court of the United States should be able to deny the enfranchisement of a single voter anywhere in the country.
Our Democracy was in shambles long before the election of 2000. Only a fraction of Americans trouble themselves to vote. Not all of those participate in the process in a responsible manner. With our system in such grave danger, each of us ought to be doing everything in our power to assure the legitimacy of the process. We each ought to be voting, of course, but we also ought to be participating in some political party at the grass roots level—attending caucuses and conventions—actively supporting any candidate in whom we can believe—and engaging in serious political discussion anywhere we can. We each ought to challenge faulty political thought and action wherever we find it-by writing to our Representatives and Senators-by writing to newspapers and other venues-even by running for office ourselves. It is our responsibility.
As for George W. Bush and Al Gore, we should call them to account for their shameful behavior in November and December. On November 8th, each of them ought to have insisted on the broadest possible counting of all legitimate Florida votes, and pledged his personal support to the outcome, no matter the victor. Bush might still have been elected. But we could all have felt that either man was a deserving and capable leader for the world's largest democracy. I certainly don't feel that way about either of them today.
copyright © 2001 J. C. Adamson