Election Decided by Turnout, Thugs, and Lawyers

Michael Barone argues that, even more than is normally the case, turnout will be the key to this election.

Some elections are about persuasion. This one is about turnout. In past presidential debates, candidates have tried to change peoples’ minds and win over undecided voters. In this year’s presidential and vice presidential debates, the candidates have tried to increase the enthusiasm of their base. The results have shown up in the polls, most vividly in those that don’t weight the results to match the party identification of the last couple of elections. Thus George W. Bush zoomed up in some polls right after the Republican National Convention in New York. The first post-convention Gallup Poll had the president ahead of John Kerry by 52 to 45 percent, compared with a 48-to-46 percent lead before the convention. Gallup is volatile because its likely-voter screen is very tight, so that not much more than a majority of registered voters are classed as likely voters. The post-convention sample had more Republicans and fewer Democrats than the preconvention poll. That’s evidence that Republicans felt a lot more enthusiastic about their president after the convention than before. [***] Pollster John Zogby, who weights his results by party identification, shows much less movement in his surveys. Starting with a poll taken during the convention, Zogby has shown Bush at 46 percent and Kerry between 42 and 44 percent.

Who’s right? The answer, I suspect, is somewhere in the middle. Zogby, I think, has it right in one important sense: Very few Republicans are abandoning Bush, and not many more Democrats are fleeing Kerry. But Gallup also has a good point. Republican and Democratic turnout is simply not the same year after year and cannot be assumed to be so this year. So this year, obviously, it’s hard to be sure. Both sides are paying unprecedented attention to turnout. The Bush campaign, from the beginning, has devoted far greater resources than previous Republican campaigns to voter registration and turnout operations. Bush spokesmen say they have attracted more than a million volunteers, with more than 50,000 each in critical states like Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. Democrats are also devoting more resources to registration and turnout than in previous years. They are relying on the labor unions, which have been their mainstay in the past, and also on liberally funded 527 organizations.

There is also a difference in motivation on the two sides. Democrats are motivated more by hate–not too strong a word–of Bush than they are by positive feelings toward Kerry, the candidate they settled on quickly to avoid the electoral disaster they thought they’d face if they nominated Howard Dean. Republicans are motivated more–not by love, that is too strong a word–but by affection for Bush and for the way he has stood up under the attacks of his opponents and the media.

John Fund thinks more sinister forces will be at play.

We may be about to experience an election unlike any we’ve seen in a while. The Florida recount in 2000 raised passions and blood pressure and featured some demonstrations on both sides, but there was no violence. This year, lots of groups are jostling with each other to monitor the elections in battleground states. For its part, the AFL-CIO has promised to dispatch thousands of election monitors to battleground states to watch for any hint of trouble at polling places. From the initial reports, they may be the ones for have to be watched as potential troublemakers.

He recounts a series of violent attacks at Republican campaign sites across the state of Florida, some of which I noted last week. Fund does not believe these to be isolated coincidences:

The AFL-CIO took credit on its Web site for similar demonstrations–apparently all coordinated–in Independence, Mo., Kansas City, Mo., Dearborn, Mich., St. Paul, Minn., and West Allis, Wis. In what could be a related incident, the Bush-Cheney office in Knoxville, Tenn., had its plate-glass windows shattered by gunfire on Tuesday morning before volunteers showed up for work. Another Republican office, in Seattle, was broken into and had computer files stolen.


Look for the Justice Department to become a major political football in this election. Already, its warnings that terrorists may well try to disrupt the Nov. 2 election is being greeted skeptically by some local election officials. New Mexico Secretary of State Rebecca Vigil-Giron, a Democrat, is openly asking if Attorney General John Ashcroft’s warnings are part of a GOP effort to suppress voter turnout. Last week, Democrats responded by creating their own SWAT teams of lawyers that will be dispatched to any place where voting problems are recorded. One issue certain to be disputed will be provisional ballots, which are cast when someone doesn’t find his name on the registration rolls. Such ballots are set aside and verified later. A flood of provisional ballot lists could tilt the election in close states one way or the other with Democrats demanding that officials “count every vote” and Republicans questioning the validity of some of the ballots.

California Assemblywoman Bonnie Garcia, a Republican, says she has found 3,000 new duplicate registrations in her district. “The current process today is really Third World conditions,” she told CNN’s Lou Dobbs program. When asked what she thinks about Democratic charges that her calls for investigations into the duplicate registrations will scare voters away from the polls, she refuses to back down. “You’re damn right, I’m going to try to scare away the crooks.”

Let’s hope the lawyers don’t take over this election’s aftermath the way they did in Florida in 2000. To prevent that the Justice Department needs to step in now and enforce everyone’s civil rights. That means protecting campaign workers from intimidation as well as preventing fraudulent votes from canceling out legitimate ballots. Allowing double voting, ballots to be cast from the graveyard and those who have been disqualified because of criminal convictions to dilute the process only calls into question the sanctity of the election itself. It’s no way to run a modern democracy.

Republican policy analysts David Davenport and Gordon Lloyd agree but believe Fund’s hopes in vain.

After the 1960 election was decided by televised debates, every presidential candidate understood the importance of media consultants and a television strategy. Sadly, with the 2000 election settled in courts of law, campaigns now believe they also need a team of lawyers and a legal strategy.

Even as the campaign climaxes with the rhetorical “air war” of presidential debates and the political “ground war” to get out the vote in battleground states, the 2004 “legal war” is being charted by growing teams of lawyers for each campaign. The legal preparation is partly defensive, but we believe there is also an offensive legal strategy afoot that could land the election in court again, regardless of who wins, or even the margin of victory. An unprecedented number of pre-emptive complaints and questions about voting processes are already setting the stage for such a legal challenge.

They give several examples, many of which strike me as perfectly legitimate questions, including the legality of absentee ballot rules that allow people to vote a month before election day in some precincts.

Ignored in all this electoral fear-mongering and legal posturing is the U. S. Constitution, which expressly endorses diversity — not uniformity — in federal elections. Constitutionally, we do not have a single national election for a leader of America, but rather 51 separate state elections (the District of Columbia is treated as a state for this purpose) for a president of the United States. And the Constitution expressly allows the states considerable liberty, even at the risk of diversity, in how they carry out these elections.

State legislatures are constitutionally empowered to set the times, places and manner of elections, according to Article I, Sect. 4, subject to congressional intervention. But Congress has deferred to the states, requiring neither a national ballot nor, as independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader has discovered, a uniform procedure to qualify for the ballot. Nor is there any congressional directive about the time of opening and closing of the polls.

This is all true. Of course, as we learned in 2000, where there’s legislation there can be litigation. Courts have the ability to intervene in elections to the extent that interested parties bring cases.

Regardless, it’s a sticky process. While talk of the U.S. electoral system being comparable to those in much of the Third World is a ridiculous exaggeration, we are experiencing some of the same phenomena. Most notably, the closeness of the last two presidential contests combined with the hyper-partisanship of the last several years have combined to create a win at all costs mentality. When otherwise rational people believe that the re-election of President Bush will lead to fascism and the scaling back of rights for women and minorities or that electing Senator Kerry will lead to the U.S. surrending its sovereignty to the United Nations and selling off our Air Force to finance forced homosexualization of socialist hospitals, it’s not surprising that they’re willing to do anything to help their team win.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. McGehee says:

    People will of course disagree (some even reasonably), but by and large when a previously peaceable political system erupts in violence, it’s because on side which has been in charge for many years detects that it is being replaced with its opposition.

    The operative phrase above is “previously peaceable.” It’s possible one could argue that Russia in 1917 was an exception, or Germany in the 1930s, but the operative word in such arguments would have to be exception.