Lessons Learned: Election 2000

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, Universityof Wisconsin - Green Bay
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The Core Myth of Election 2000

"George Bush won only because a partisan Supreme Court intervened andgave him the election."

Reality check: who injected the courts into the process in the first place?The real count, of properly marked ballots, was certified by the FloridaSecretary of State. It was only court cases brought by Gore supporters thatcreated that month-long circus of dangling and dimpled chads. And why is it thata very mildly conservative Supreme Court is "partisan" while theaggressively activist court of the 60's and 70's wasn't?

Gore would have won Florida, and the election, if:

Here in Green Bay, we mark our ballots by drawing a black line between twoarrows. The process is explained to every voter. Nevertheless, vote countersroutinely find ballots with names circled, votes marked by X's, and so on. Whatyou intend in the voting booth is irrelevant. If you intend tovote but forget to do it, you don't vote. If you intend to vote forsomeone but fail to mark your ballot properly, you don't vote.

The Election Process in a Nutshell

All you need to know about Election 2000 (and any other) was contained in a short newsitem that ran a few days before the election. A Chicago TV station that had beenrunning a no-gimmicks, just-the-facts news program took the program off the airfor lack of viewers.

We will get rational political campaigns focused on the issues only whenvoters become rational and well informed. How can any amount of money make a badidea good? Why should it make the slightest difference how much money acandidate has to spend, if we base our decisions on the quality of his ideas?Money will stop playing a role in elections when it stops playing a role withvoters. Negative campaigns will end when people stop being influenced by them.Expecting campaign finance reform when we have a superficial, uninformedelectorate is like expecting sponsors of Saturday morning cartoons to stopadvertising sugary cereal to kids. If you expect campaign managers to give upmethods that work because the public is too lazy and lacking in integrity tobother becoming informed, you expect what never was and never will be. Thetragedy is not that so many people fail to vote on election day but that so manyuninformed and superficially informed people do.

As if the problem isn’t bad enough already, some people argue that it’s“too hard” to vote. For example, they argue we should vote on weekends whenpeople have more free time. On Election Day 2000, I voted. Then I got towork by 8 A.M. Then, after work, I went to the airport and boarded a flight forthe East Coast. How exactly was your Election Day busier than mine?

Conventional Wisdom is Right

Conventional wisdom is right. A vote for a third party candidate iswasted. In a parliamentary system like that in Canada or most Europeancountries, voters choose the legislature, who then elects the chief executive.In such a system a party like the Greens can have real power because it is oftennecessary to create coalitions when no party has a majority. But when the chiefexecutive is elected directly, minor parties serve only to siphon off votes frommajor party candidates.

In any event, electing a President is useless if you don’t also elect aCongress that will pass his legislation. Ralph Nader as President with aRepublican Congress would have been a recipe for total gridlock (not necessarilya bad thing - as someone once said, no one’s liberty or property is safe whilethe legislature is in session). The irony of our system is that the FoundingFathers tried their utmost to create a system that would have no politicalparties whatsoever.

If you want to reform the system, I suggest there are several things you cando. First, get a grasp of political reality. All the blather about the need forminor party candidates is an insult to the tens of millions who are reasonablysatisfied with the Democratic or Republican platforms. The parties have a lot ofsimilarities because the center is where the voters are. Politics in America isplayed between the 30-yard lines, and candidates who are seen as representingthe fringe of either party (Goldwater in 1964, McGovern in 1972) get whomped bigtime. Campaign financing is a convenient rationalization, but I seriously doubtRalph Nader or Pat Buchanan would draw more than ten percent of the voteregardless of how much money they had. If you want total abolition of taxes, orthe government to end poverty by printing a million dollars for every citizen,or your sect made the official state religion, it just isn’t going to happen.There are a lot of dumb voters out there, but there are also a lot of smartones, and even many of the dumb ones will have agendas contrary to yours.

If you want reform, the most viable approach is to try to change one of themajor parties. But if you really think neither party is salvageable, the time tostart is right now. Get out today - not tomorrow - and start canvassing andcollecting funds, run candidates for Congress in the next off-year election, and maybe by the next Presidential election you canhave an impact. Deciding the morning after Super Tuesday that you want to runfor President just doesn’t cut it.

Then there are many people who claim to be so disillusioned that they don’tparticipate at all. What these folks are saying is that those of us who doparticipate can work to reform the system, and when we have put in enough time,money and effort to change things to their satisfaction, they will condescend tocome out and grace us with their participation. Can you tell I’m notimpressed? These people aren’t principled - they’re parasites andfreeloaders. If they don’t like the system and aren’t doing anything tochange it, they deserve what they get. Stay home, people! You just helpmake my vote more valuable.

One last point. Al Gore, we hope, could have provided effective leadershipafter the attacks of September 11, 2001, but the thought of Ralph Nader tryingto cope makes my skin crawl. In my lifetime, the best argument for the two-partysystem has been the people who ran as third-party candidates. 

The Main Reason to Cheer Third Parties

Frankly, I think we should encourage third parties at every opportunity. The curse of American politics is that the mass of voters are in the center but party activists are on the fringes. So cheers to the Libertarians. All you guys who want to abolish taxes and privatize streets and roads, join up. All you nut jobs on the far Religious Right, form a Christian Nation party. Eco-activists, join the Green Party. Let's revive the Socialist Party. Then all the people who hold those views can have a party all their own, can engage in endless junior-high level debates about who's the most ideologically pure, and they will all end up exactly where they deserve to be - marginalized. Put the lunatic fringe out on the fringe where it belongs.

A Parliamentary Scenario

Some people lament that we don't have a parliamentary system. In a parliamentary system, minor parties can leverage their power by joining coalitions, and the legislature and executive branch cooperate because the legislature picks the chief executive.

So it's 1994. The Republicans take Congress, and they vote in a new President (Prime Minister?) - Newt Gingrich. Or it's 2006, the Democrats take Congress, and they vote in Nancy Pelosi.

Maybe not.

The Electoral College Did What it was Designed to Do

The Electoral College works. Look at a map of the U.S. with electoralreturns by county. Gore had a slight majority of the popular vote, but about 80per cent of the area of the U.S. voted for Bush. And that’s preciselywhy the Electoral College was created - to prevent population centers fromrunning roughshod over rural areas. Many rural voters, especially in the West,see themselves as being exploited to pay for urban social problems they didn’tcreate and hamstrung by regulations they neither need nor want. It probablygalls Democrats immensely to be cast in the role of oppressive majority, withconservative rural and small town voters the protected minority, but that’sexactly how the system worked in this case.

There is, of course, the inevitable talk of abolishing the Electoral College.There’s something to be said for keeping votes in discrete bins - imagine thechaos of a national recount - but beyondthat, it takes a three-quarters majority of the states to amend theConstitution. It only takes thirteen states to block a Constitutional amendment.Does anyone picture the Rocky Mountain or Plains states, some of which went morethan two to one for Bush, agreeing?

Besides, if you really, really, really, really, really, really, want to correct an undemocratic situation, rein in the ability of nine non-elected judges to repeal laws passed by democratically elected legislatures, or, even more flagrantly, popular vote.

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Created 2 January 2002, Last Update 15 January 2020

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