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CHRISTOPHER TAYLOR'S BOOKS

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

COMMON KNOWLEDGE: Florida 2000

"...and third I want a recount. No matter how it turns out, I want my old job back!"
 -Ron Miller (Robocop)

The 2000 United States presidential election was the most controversial and bizarre in American history. Books have been written about it by radical partisans trying to push their version of events, and when it was all over, most Americans just wanted to forget the whole thing and go on with their lives - particularly Floridians who were shown in an especially embarrassing light.

Around the world, people I have spoken to are a bit unclear on what exactly happened, most having heard only bits and pieces from local news or read books such as Fahrenheit 9/11 for their information. In America, there are some who cling to the certainty that President Bush stole the election using the courts.

We're told that President Bush used the Supreme Court to cheat Al Gore out of victory.  We're told that recounts were stopped because they were going to shoe Gore winning.  We're told that Al Gore just wanted to get the proper vote and the Republicans led by George Bush the younger cheated voters out of their democratic rights.   Is any of that true?

This is one of the biggest myths of our time, repeated blithely and mindlessly by people who don't have the first clue about what took place or why.  None of what they say has the slightest merit - in fact, most of it is the opposite of what happened.  Here's what took place...

THE CHOICES
The 2000 election elected many state-level politicians as well as federal, such as governors, legislators, and congressmen. Every four years, there is a scheduled US federal election for president, and since 1951, the 22nd amendment of the United States Constitution limits the president to two terms of office. President Clinton was finishing up his second term, and thus the field was wide open. By summer of 1999, the two main candidates were nominated for the upcoming election: Vice President Albert Gore, jr and Governor George W. Bush of Texas.

Most Americans were less than enthused with the two options, seeing it as a choice between third best and even worse. Still, we need a president and sometimes the less impressive ends up being quite capable and worthy of office. The campaign was fiercely fought and very closely matched all the way up to election day.

THE ELECTORAL COLLEGE
In the United States, the general election for president does not directly elect the president. The voters are picking which electors they will send to the electoral college, reputable and capable men and women that are elected to choose the president. Each state has a number of electors based on that state's population, equal to the total number of congressmen of that state. This system seems odd to people outside the United States, and to some who live here, but there are some very good reasons for it.

First, voting directly by population would give certain very large cities enormous control over who was elected president and remove vast portions of the population from significance altogether. A presidential candidate would only have to win New York, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia to win, ignoring the rest of the country entirely. This would not only tilt the country heavily in favor of urban areas and their ideology (which tends to be more left-leaning) it would essentially negate democracy entirely for 45 states. The Electoral College reduces this effect, presidential candidates cannot ignore as many states, and must campaign in more than just the biggest population centers.

Second, the states are represented as a whole rather than ignoring states and treating individual voters as separate entities. This may seem reasonable until you understand the entire concept and foundation of the United States. The United States are named that because each state is viewed as largely independent and sovereign over it's own territory in the Constitution and in the ideals of the founding fathers. For them, the states were separate entities that the federal government acted as an oversight committee dealing with disputes and issues between states. When a candidate wins New Mexico, for example, it doesn't matter if he wins by .05% or 60%, he wins the state and the state sends the electors to vote. In essence, it is like each individual state is a separate country who votes for a candidate, then all these "mini-countries" send electors to the main body and vote for the overall winner.

Playoff bracketsThink of the Electoral College votes as being scores in a playoff system for a sport. Each separate game can be won by a variety of different scores, but the scores merely tell who won, they aren't added up to find out the final winner. Let's say there's a seven-game playoff between the Manfred Phoons and the Zalawi M'tahs. The scores look like this:

Game 1: Phoons 3, M'Tahs 4
Game 2: Phoons 11, M'Tahs 4
Game 3: Phoons 2, M'Tahs 7
Game 4: Phoons 3, M'Tahs 2
Game 5: Phoons 5, M'Tahs 10
Game 6: Phoons 16, M'Tahs 4
Game 7: Phoons 1, M'Tahs 4


Overall, the M'Tahs won the series, because they won four of the seven games. Now if you add up the total scores in all games, the Phoons won 41-34 which makes it seem like they won. However, they lost more games than they won, even though the scores were high in their wins. They won two game by more than 10 runs each, making those game very lopsided, but in the overall series the better team won out. In the same way, the electoral college looks at the whole picture rather than the "runs" or individual votes of each candidate. Wild swings and popularity in one state or another are evened out for the nation as a whole.

Both candidates - Al Gore and George Bush the younger (his father was president in 1989-1992) - understood this system and tried to win their election to president based on it. They chose the states with the most electoral votes, and targeted the ones that they would have the hardest time winning to campaign hardest, trying to persuade the voters there to elect them. Al Gore admitted this during the campaign, following the same strategy Bill Clinton had four years earlier.

THE MESS BEGINS
When the final vote totals were tallied on election night, Al Gore had actually won more popular votes than George Bush by a small margin - but he'd lost the electoral college totals, with Florida being the final, deciding state, giving George Bush its 25 electors. Al Gore readied his concession speech and headed in a motorcade to the Nashville War Memorial, and the television news broadcasts announced George Bush as the winner. There is even credible reporting that Al Gore even had called George Bush, offered his congratulations and conceded the election.

Then Al Gore got word that the election was very, very close: at the time he was told that there was only a 6,000 vote difference in favor of George Bush, although eventually it was found to be just over 500. So instead of the concession speech, here's what the crowd heard at the War Memorial:
Without being certain of the results in Florida, we simply cannot be certain of the results of this national election. Let me add that Vice President Gore and Senator Lieberman are fully prepared to concede and to support Governor Bush if and when he is officially elected president. But this race is simply too close to call, and until the results -- the recount is concluded and the results of Florida become official, our campaign continues.
Al Gore called George Bush back and recanted his concession, a call that was less than pleasant on both sides by all accounts.Now, New Mexico also was close, even closer than Florida ended up being, just 363 votes of difference between candidates. But New Mexico has a small population, and thus not enough electoral college votes to make the difference in the election so it went uncontested by Al Gore. In other words, Al Gore wasn't so much concerned with the slim margin as the electoral votes and possibility of flipping this into a win for him.

A recount is not unreasonable at even 6,000 votes. Florida has a state law that requires a recount if the margin is small enough and by the time the numbers were more carefully tabulated then the effort by TV news, it was about 2,000 votes that separated the winner from the loser. So by law an automatic recount was started. The law permitted a candidate to request that ballots be counted by hand, so the Gore team selected four counties in Florida that were most heavily Democratic and asked for the votes in only those to be hand-counted.  He ignored the rest of the state, focusing only on those counties.

Examining ChadsThis process is meticulous and slow, and the deadline as set by the Florida state legislature was fast approaching. By US Constitutional law, all state elections are set and defined by the individual state lawmakers. They alone have the power and legal right to decide when counts are cut off, when the elections are held, how the counts are done, and so on. Al Gore's legal team went to the Florida Courts in Palm Beach Canvassing Board v. Katherine Harris which asked for the deadline to be extended and further for the criteria used to count be changed to more subjective standards.

The official standard held that any ballot that had not clearly marked who the person voted for by punching out the chad or small piece of paper next to the appropriate candidate's name would be disqualified and not counted. The Gore team wanted dimpled and hanging chads to be counted, contrary to the state law of elections as constitutionally laid out by the state legislature.  What are these chads?

A dimpled chad is on in which the voting machine appears to have dented the chad next to the name, but did not punch through. The thought being "well they were too weak to pull the lever or it was malfunctioning, or they changed their minds, but this was their choice initially."

A hanging chad is one which has not been punched all the way out. The state law allowed vote counters to count chads that were still connected but punched almost all the way out; hanging by a thread, as it were. Gore's legal team wanted the criteria to include chads that were partially punched out, by any separation whatsoever.

Florida BallotThese terms became something of a national joke as news broadcaster after pundit used them over and over to try to explain what was happening. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party called a telemarketing company in Texas called Telequest which hired people to call the network news and different congressmen, complaining about how difficult the ballot had been to read and how they had voted for the wrong guy. This theme was picked up by the news and became a running joke in the country as well about Florida Voters and their difficulty in reading a ballot, particularly the Palm Beach county ballot.

Eventually, the Florida Supreme Court decided that the deadline should be extended until the entire process was completed. While this is questionable based on the constitution's directives for electoral law, it is reasonable based on the rights of voters and the concept of democracy. Slowness of the process should not rob people of their vote.

The Bush legal team appealed to the United States Supreme Court based on the constitutional issue I related above (legislatures decide voting procedure, not courts). The Supreme Court asked the Florida Supreme Court to restate the reasons for their 4-3 decision, citing "considerable uncertainty" about why they'd made that call. While the Supreme Court deliberated over Bush v Gore, the Florida Supreme Court issued a clarification, but kept the recounting going.

Al Gore lost the first recount, and Secretary of State Katherine Harris certified the election results according to Florida law. Remember the Gore team's words:
"...and until the results -- the recount is concluded and the results of Florida become official, our campaign continues."
Al Gore's legal team went back to the Florida Supreme Court and requested a second recount, requesting that undervotes be recounted, and the court agreed. An Undervote is the term to describe when people vote in an election but skip certain portions of it to vote on other parts. In the Florida election, there was a notable number of people who voted, but did not vote for a Presidential candidate. Another oddity were overvotes in which the voter picked more than one candidate, thus negating their choice entirely by election law. The Gore legal team wanted these to be interpreted based on how each chad was poked through: the more complete chad ejection being the winner of the two choices. The results of this recount were to be added to the election totals.

The Supreme Court of the United States then announced their decision, calling an end to the recounts at the point they had reached. The courts also ordered the Florida Supreme Court to vacate their previous decisions, scolding the lesser court for overstepping its legal and constitutional boundaries by ordering things that it had no legal power to order. When a decision is vacated, it is a repudiation of that decision by a higher court - and further, it removes that decision from case law and precedent. It is akin to a spanking by a higher court to have a decision be vacated. The SCOTUS further declared the different counting and ballot approval standards in each of the four counties to be a violation of the 14th amendment, which requires all people to be judged by the same laws.

At this point Al Gore gave his concession speech "for the sake of our unity as a people and the strength of our democracy." These words rung hollow in many peoples' ears after the antics of the previous month of constant legal battles and recounts.

NOT OVER YET
At this point, the president had been finally elected and the system ran its course. That did not mean the battles were over, though. To this day, various accusations and themes are repeated by bitter and angry opponents of President Bush. They claim he was selected by the Supreme Court, that the vote counts were rigged, that the Secretary of State (Katherine Harris) overruled the people's votes, that she threw out valid voters to stack the election for George Bush when she purged the voter rolls. They alleged that blacks were disenfranchised, that fraud was rampant, that the ballots were difficult to read and deliberately designed to puzzle voters. Further, many people voted in heavily Democrat areas of Florida for alternate candidates such as Pat Buchanan and Ralph Nader, which the Gore team argued was because of a confusing ballot.

Several popular books allege these very things, as does the Michael Moore agitprop film Fahrenheit 9/11. This was the beginning of the cries of electoral manipulation of Diebold voting machines, which carried on right up to the day of the November 2006 election. So what really happened? Was there fraud, was there manipulation of votes, were people thrown off the voting rolls that should not have been?

VOTER PURGE
First, lets look at the purge of voting records. Most states before a major election will by law purge the voting records. As part of the "motor voter" legislation passed in the 90s, all states are required by federal law to purge their rolls before a national election. This purging is done for a variety of reasons, with the overall intent to make sure only people who are properly registered and eligible to vote do so. For example, people who die may still be on the voting records, people who have moved out of state, been convicted and jailed for a felony all can still be eligible to vote until the rolls are purged. Further, people who move within the state, especially new college students, often end up on the rolls twice or more. This would allow them to vote in more than one location and be counted more than once. People who register as a different party affiliation may end up more than once in the rolls.

The purpose of purging the voter totals is to make sure the election is clean: one vote per person, and only people who are eligible to vote can do so. To fail to do so would result in significant fraud potential and mess the entire system up. Both Florida state and federal law required Katherine Harris to purge the voter rolls before the 2000 election in Florida, and she did so.

The reason this new cleanup was mandated by state law is that the previous election was notoriously bedeviled with fraud. In Miami and Dade counties especially there were numerous counts of deceased people voting, sometimes more than once. There were non-citizens voting, felons voting, out of state people voting, people from outside the country voting. Florida has a peculiar problem where many people who are quite wealthy have homes in both Florida and New York City, and often end up able to vote in both places. The Federal government in essence told Florida "clean up your act or we will." So they set about doing so.

When DBS Systems, a private database company, took over the purge of the voter rolls, they were aghast. Some precincts had not done so since the 1960s during Jim Crow. DBS tried to clean up these problems, disqualifying felons and non-citizens, eliminating those who were no longer living in a given county or even the state or US entirely. They tried to make sure the election process was clear, and in the process, mistakes were made.

In heavily Democratic, minority areas, the mistakes tended to be Democrats and minorities. In heavily Republican, white areas the mistakes tended to be white and Republican. As the majority of voters were white in Florida, the majority of mistakes were actually whites, but by a smaller margin than would be expected. One problem is that of false positives from name similarities. John Doe the felon may have exactly the same name as John Doe the upstanding citizen, and if you clean both out, then the citizen loses his right to vote.

Such votes are placed in a category called "provisional" ballots, which can be counted later if the person in question can prove they are eligible to vote. In Florida, the bulk of criminals put in prison are Hispanic or other minorities, like in most states. Thus, the bulk of this kind of mistake were of minorities. However, DBS tried to avoid this problem by contacting names that were taken off the voter rolls that they couldn't be sure of. For every suchname that was purged, several cards were sent out to the person in question saying "we have a discrepancy with your voting records. Please contact us."  Since provisional balloting was available, the system was deemed as good as they were likely to get.

THE BALLOT
Butterfly BallotOne of the complaints that comes up is that the "butterfly ballot" used in several counties such as Palm Beach was difficult to understand and vote on. Never mind that this was designed by the Democrat-controlled legislature and all political parties involved approved the layout. Never mind these sort of ballots had been used in dozens of elections around the country in the past without problems. It was confusing, people said. Take a look at the picture accompanying this paragraph and you can decide how confusing it was.

Bland ChoicesThe presumption is that no way would all these heavily Democrat areas vote for President Bush or especially a third party candidate such as Buchanan instead of Al Gore, so it must be a problem with the ballot. The truth is, like I said above, many people really did not like either candidate and a third party guy looked like a good protest vote at the very least. Further, if you look at the overall regional effect, Al Gore lost every single southern state in the US including his home state of Tennessee. The fact that people might vote for someone other than him in Florida is not unthinkable. In fact it is likely, given the circumstances.

MILITARY BALLOTS
During the 2000 election like the elections of the past, members of the United States military overseas get to vote as well. They are mailed absentee ballots and send those back to be counted in their home states. These votes are added to the totals, and thus men and women serving their country away from their homes get to vote as well. In the 2000 election, there were several delays in getting ballots out to the soldiers, irregularities in the military mailing system, and as a result many military voters did not get their ballots back in time even though they were postmarked before the election was held.

The policy of Florida and all other states was to count these ballots even though they were late because they were postmarked by the proper election time; the attempt was made to vote on time, the postal system delayed their arrival. Like I said above, slowness of the process should not rob people of their vote. Like previous elections, Florida even counted ballots that lacked postmarks or were marked after the election date because of a desire for soldiers to have their vote counted.

The idea of the Democrat-controlled legislature and Democrat-controlled voting precincts was that people serving in the armed forces deserve to vote at least as much as people at home, and being out of the country should not hinder this. Especially those on ships have a difficult time getting mail to them and mailed out if they are out of contact with the land for weeks at a time.

However, since military members vote Republican by a large majority (70-80 percent, depending on the candidates), the Democrats cried foul, claiming the Republican secretary of state was favoring Republicans.  Sure, this was done the same way the previous presidential election Clinton won, and sure, it had been done for many elections before, but this time they claimed fraud.

RECOUNTS
There were actually several recounts done by private agencies after the election was finally called and finalized. Bush won them all. The Miami Herald, a heavily Democrat paper that is again no friend of President Bush said this after the recount they sponsored was final:
Republican George W. Bush's victory in Florida, which gave him the White House, certainly would have endured even if a recount stopped by the U.S. Supreme Court had been allowed to go forward.
The New York Times - no friend of George Bush - even said this after a count by a coalition of eight media groups was finished:
Study of Disputed Florida Ballots Finds Justices Did Not Cast the Deciding Vote

A comprehensive review of the uncounted Florida ballots from last year's presidential election reveals that George W. Bush would have won even if the United States Supreme Court had allowed the statewide manual recount of the votes that the Florida Supreme Court had ordered to go forward.
There have been in all eight recounts of the election which President Bush won. In total there have been thirteen recounts, and the only ones Gore wins in are the ones that include dimpled and overcounts in Gore's favor. Even these excessive standards give Gore only a tiny margin of victory.

The fact is, Floridians actually did vote for President Bush over Al Gore. The electoral college actually did choose him for President, exactly according to the system laid out by the United States Constitution over 200 years ago and followed in every single election, and George Bush really did win the election.

OTHER ELECTIONS
This is not the first time an electoral college winner did not get the majority of the popular vote. It has happened twice in the past: 1876 (Rutherford B. Hayes over Samuel Tilton) and 1888 (Benjamin Harrison over Grover Cleveland). In fact, in 1824, John Quincy Adams did not win a majority of either the popular vote or the electoral college, and was appointed president by congress.

Close elections are not new in the United States (or elsewhere) either. George Will pointed this out in a column in 2004:
If today's election produces vast consequences from slender margins, relax. This is not unusual. In 1916 a switch of 1,771 votes in California would have enabled Charles Evans Hughes to rescue the nation from President Wilson. In 1948 a switch of 30,262 votes in California, Illinois, Ohio and Nevada would have replaced President Harry Truman with Tom Dewey. In 1968 a switch of 53,034 votes in New Jersey, New Hampshire and Missouri would have denied Richard Nixon an electoral vote majority and, because George Wallace won 46 electoral votes, the House probably would have awarded the presidency to Hubert Humphrey. In 1976 a switch of 9,246 votes in Ohio and Hawaii would have enabled President Gerald Ford to beat Jimmy Carter with 270 electoral votes — but 1.5 million fewer popular votes than Carter had.
The bottom line is this: President George W. Bush won the 2000 election by a very slim margin. That's simply the facts of the case, and facts, not hype and emotion should rule how we judge events. No matter what attempts are used to rewrite history, the election turned out how it was supposed to have. The only surprising thing to me is that Gore hasn't turned into a household word for the worst sort of sore loser. Recount until I win was his position - one that actually worked in the 2004 election of Washington State Governor Christine Gregoire.

CONCLUSION
CheatiesWhy does it matter? There are several reasons. The United States suffered so much esteem worldwide that foreign countries sent in "election watchers" to the US in greater numbers than ever before to oversee the election of 2004. Many people worldwide think Al Gore won and President Bush used the courts to get the presidency, they honestly believe this even though it was Al Gore who was attempting to do that very thing. The US became a mockery to the world as they watched us struggle over the petulance of a candidate who refused to admit loss and dragged the process on and on with lawyers and courts. Granted, every nation has had its problems with elections, from England's corrupt boroughs to Venezuela's faux elections. But the United States has set the standard for liberty and democracy for over 200 years.

Further, the antics of Al Gore actually gave precedent to attempts like Governor Gregoire in Washington State or Al Franken in Minnesota to do the same thing until they win. Just recount over and over until you find the votes you need (literally in her case). It erodes all voter confidence - why vote if your ballot is going to be used in a power struggle to cheat until the other side concedes or the courts rule in your favor? Fraud is damaging to democracies, as soon as voters lose all trust in the voting process, the democracy is dead.

Finally, in the light of the events of 2001 when President Bush took office, the delay of any power transfer and preparing for running the country that these events caused might have had lethal repercussions. President Bush took office with a plan to fight terror, to strengthen the efforts of the United States to crack down on it nationally and world wide. He did not get that plan in place until August, and the next month we all know what happened. Would it have made a difference if he could have had the usual time and focus to prepare for office? We'll never know - but it certainly didn't help matters to have the distraction of legal battles and uncertainty how it would turn out.

The screams of Diebold manipulation, "selected rather than elected" and voter fraud by the left and echoed in the media does not help this country out. It makes us look poor overseas, it makes the country more divided than it ought to be, and it hurts the next election. The 2006 election is proof positive that these cries were sour grapes: I didn't win so I'm going to cry foul, but if I win hey, it all worked out perfectly. Note the stunning lack of such cries by the Republicans after the 2006 election: the GOP is a miserable pack of politicians, but at least they don't stoop that low. Let's not have a repeat of this nonsense, ever again.

You have the record set straight for you here. It's up to you whether you want to face the facts or not - but for the sake of the nation and your own peace of mind, at least spend some time thinking about it. If your guy loses, don't be a Gore.

This is a repost of Setting the Record Straight: Florida 2000 from 2007, slightly edited and now part of the Common Knowledge series: things we know that ain't so.

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