Lessons Learned: Election 2000

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

"George Bush won only because a partisan Supreme Court intervened and gave 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 Florida Secretary of State. It was only court cases brought by Gore supporters that created that month-long circus of dangling and dimpled chads. And why is it that a very mildly conservative Supreme Court is "partisan" while the aggressively 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 two arrows. The process is explained to every voter. Nevertheless, vote counters routinely find ballots with names circled, votes marked by X's, and so on. What you intend in the voting booth is irrelevant. If you intend to vote but forget to do it, you don't vote. If you intend to vote for someone 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 news item that ran a few days before the election. A Chicago TV station that had been running a no-gimmicks, just-the-facts news program took the program off the air for lack of viewers.

We will get rational political campaigns focused on the issues only when voters become rational and well informed. How can any amount of money make a bad idea good? Why should it make the slightest difference how much money a candidate 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 with voters. Negative campaigns will end when people stop being influenced by them. Expecting campaign finance reform when we have a superficial, uninformed electorate is like expecting sponsors of Saturday morning cartoons to stop advertising sugary cereal to kids. If you expect campaign managers to give up methods that work because the public is too lazy and lacking in integrity to bother becoming informed, you expect what never was and never will be. The tragedy is not that so many people fail to vote on election day but that so many uninformed 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 when people have more free time. On Election Day 2000, I voted. Then I got to work by 8 A.M. Then, after work, I went to the airport and boarded a flight for the 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 is wasted. In a parliamentary system like that in Canada or most European countries, 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 often necessary to create coalitions when no party has a majority. But when the chief executive is elected directly, minor parties serve only to siphon off votes from major party candidates.

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

If you want to reform the system, I suggest there are several things you can do. First, get a grasp of political reality. All the blather about the need for minor party candidates is an insult to the tens of millions who are reasonably satisfied with the Democratic or Republican platforms. The parties have a lot of similarities because the center is where the voters are. Politics in America is played between the 30-yard lines, and candidates who are seen as representing the fringe of either party (Goldwater in 1964, McGovern in 1972) get whomped big time. Campaign financing is a convenient rationalization, but I seriously doubt Ralph Nader or Pat Buchanan would draw more than ten percent of the vote regardless of how much money they had. If you want total abolition of taxes, or the 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 smart ones, 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 the major parties. But if you really think neither party is salvageable, the time to start is right now. Get out today - not tomorrow - and start canvassing and collecting funds, run candidates for Congress in the next off-year election, and maybe by the next Presidential election you can have an impact. Deciding the morning after Super Tuesday that you want to run for President just doesn’t cut it.

Then there are many people who claim to be so disillusioned that they don’t participate at all. What these folks are saying is that those of us who do participate 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 to come out and grace us with their participation. Can you tell I’m not impressed? These people aren’t principled - they’re parasites and freeloaders. If they don’t like the system and aren’t doing anything to change it, they deserve what they get. Stay home, people! You just help make my vote more valuable.

One last point. Al Gore, we hope, could have provided effective leadership after the attacks of September 11, 2001, but the thought of Ralph Nader trying to cope makes my skin crawl. In my lifetime, the best argument for the two-party system 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 electoral returns by county. Gore had a slight majority of the popular vote, but about 80 per cent of the area of the U.S. voted for Bush. And that’s precisely why the Electoral College was created - to prevent population centers from running roughshod over rural areas. Many rural voters, especially in the West, see themselves as being exploited to pay for urban social problems they didn’t create and hamstrung by regulations they neither need nor want. It probably galls Democrats immensely to be cast in the role of oppressive majority, with conservative rural and small town voters the protected minority, but that’s exactly 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 the chaos of a national recount - but beyond that, it takes a three-quarters majority of the states to amend the Constitution. It only takes thirteen states to block a Constitutional amendment. Does anyone picture the Rocky Mountain or Plains states, some of which went more than 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 02 June 2010

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