The Shadow of 2000
The two parties learned different lessons from the last contested election.
I listened to today’s episode of the NYT The Daily podcast, “The Shadow of the 2000 Election,” on the drive in. Despite having lived through it—and, indeed, being a young political science professor teaching multiple sections of American Government at the time—it changed my perceptions of that contest somewhat.
As regular readers will know or at least have surmised, I voted for the ultimate winner, George W. Bush and was happy with the outcome. But the combination of the passage of time and the news sources I was predominately consuming at the time (I was reading and listening widely but the Internet was just becoming a major news source and I was still a rather avid Fox News watcher and Rush Limbaugh listener) have distorted my sense of what happened.
First, while I steamed over it for years, I had largely forgotten that the networks erroneously called Florida for Gore while voting was still going on in the Florida Panhandle.
Second—and this was almost certainly the Fox/Limbaugh/talk radio influence—I had the wrong impression/recall of the whole “hanging chad” issue. Essentially, my recollection was that lots of people were just too stupid or lazy to vote correctly. While I’m sure that was indeed true, there were legitimate mechanical obstacles in the way voting machines were designed (namely, the detached chads would pile up inside and make it hard to get a clean punch) that impacted the vote.
Third, while I remembered the “butterfly ballot” fiasco that led to some untold number of Jewish voters in Palm Beach County voting for Pat Buchanan, I didn’t realize or remember just how many votes were likely impacted—perhaps some 60,000 in a contest decided by a few hundred ballots.
Fourth, while I was at the time angry about the way Al Gore was conducting his legal fight and the rulings of the Florida Supreme Court I had forgotten how brazen they were in trying to stack the deck. The Gore team cherry-picked heavily Democratic precincts in which to find additional votes and, in contravention of existing rules, the courts allowed them to get away with it. While Bush v Gore was a really questionable in many ways, I’m more convinced now than I was yesterday that the outcome in restoring the rules that we went into the election with was the right one.
Fifth, while I’ve always given Al Gore credit for how well he handled the (second) concession, I hadn’t heard the original in two decades. It was incredibly gracious and self-deprecating under the circumstances.
Sixth, while I vaguely remember the “Brooks Brothers riot,” I did not recall that as the beginning of the Republican Party’s obsession with “voter fraud.”
The last point is really the thesis of the episode, although it takes some time to get there. Republicans, myself included, legitimately thought Democrats were trying to steal the election. But the specific thing being protested wasn’t in fact “voter fraud” or, indeed, untoward.
That the Gore team had successfully petitioned the courts to change the rules written by the state legislature to allow four heavily-Democratic precincts to recount the votes was outrageous. That the three election officials decided that, since they simply lacked the manpower to count all the votes in the precinct in the time available and would therefore focus on just ballots they knew hadn’t been counted was problematic but not fraudulent. And, while it was easy to make fun of the attempts to divine voter intention by looking at undetached chads—and to assume ill motive given that the officials were partisans—there was no actual evidence they were doing other than their level best to do a thankless job.
My view at the time, and to this day, is that Bush was legitimately elected under the rules of the game but the rules of the game need to be changed. (Additionally, unlike 2016, the closeness of 2000—and the pre-election polling was even closer than the final balloting—meant there was an argument to be made that Bush could have won the popular vote if the contest was waged with that as the objective.)
I thought then and think now that Bush won Florida under the rules of the game but that considerably more Florida voters intended to vote for Gore—and even more preferred Gore to Bush. That is, the butterfly ballot (designed, by the way, by Democratic election officials, so certainly with no ill intent) doubtless gave Buchanan votes that were meant for Gore. And almost all Ralph Nader voters would have chosen Gore over Bush in a run-off or instant-runoff system.
I’m more adamant now that the rules simply have to be changed to respect those preferences. I assumed at the time that the Electoral College would be gotten rid of forthwith, displaying a naivete about both voter attention spans and how hard it is to fix the system given that it creates perverse incentives.
Regardless, the irony of 2000 is that the Democrats tried to steal an election that they should probably have won and the Republicans came away understanding that, if the preferences of all voters are accurately tallied, they can’t win. So, they turned to increasingly nefarious means of making it harder for those likely to vote Democrat to do so.
Aside from being evil and undemocratic, it has been counterproductive. The lesson of 2000—and every election since then other than 2004—should have been that the platform and message needs to change in order to attract a wider swatch of a changing electorate. (Although, in fairness, Bush legitimately tried to do that, with at least some success.) But, if the game is rigged by suppressing the Black vote, then the incentive is to drive up gap in the white vote. That’s increasingly a losing strategy.