When you read this, George W. Bush may be President, which will most likely mean that his lawyers, his brother Jeb and his Florida campaign co-chair and ambassadorial wannabe Katherine Harris succeeded in short-circuiting the manual recounts in Florida that had Al Gore's total edging upward. Or Gore--who, as we went to press, said he would abide by the results of a limited or, if Bush preferred, statewide hand recount--may have wrested victory from the jaws of premature concession because the hand-counted chads were hanging his way.
The bromide "every vote must count" has oft been uttered, but the Florida election ripped the veil off the many ways votes can be made not to count. Such as: Secretary of State Harris's refusal to redress blunders like the mysteriously unrecorded 6,600 presidential-line votes in Broward County; her selective tolerance of a 5 percent error rate in Florida's voting-card machines in an election with a far narrower margin; improprieties in the handling of GOP absentee ballots in Seminole County; closings of polling places in certain black precincts while voters were still waiting in line; and denial of requests for Creole interpreters.
In tandem with these ward-heeler power plays went the Bush forces' relentless stealth attack on democracy--the strategy seemed to be to sow confusion and doubt about the counting process. Leading the spinners was the pompous ex-Secretary of State James Baker, whose phalanx of lawyers sought an injunction in federal court--never mind the hypocrisy of champions of states' rights trying to overturn state elections laws. Federal judge Donald Middlebrooks gave these ploys short shrift and underscored that recounts are not aberrations in our system but routine occurrences, which a body of state and local law exists to handle.
The polls showed that a majority of Americans approved of the idea that the votes be fully and fairly counted; it was mainly the conservative punditocracy and academic talking heads who called for Gore to fall on his sword. We were reminded of the run-up to impeachment, when some of these same tribunes were hectoring President Clinton to resign rather than "put the country through" a period of instability threatening to undermine democracy and the Free World. Such warnings were dusted off for Baker's PR drive, enlivened with dire threats that the market would go south if a recount continued (upon which the market, driven by its inner neuroses, went up). Conveniently forgotten was the fact that there's a President on the job until January 20.
As the legal/political maneuvers unfolded we were struck by the relevance of what contributors to this issue, among them Lani Guinier, Theodore Lowi and William Greider, are saying from different angles: First, that democracy is messy and unpredictable--something the elites abhor--and all the more reason to insure that every vote is duly counted; and second, that over the long term the aftermath of this election may be more important than the question of which contender wins the race--if it galvanizes citizens to take a fresh look at the American way of voting. Right now we live in a drafty old house, and our contributors propose some practical ways to fix the roof and shore up the foundation. As Americans have learned throughout history, our rights periodically have to be wrested back from elites trying to take them away--as the Bush team was caught doing in Florida.
For years many of us have called for a national conversation about what it means to be a multiracial democracy. We have enumerated the glaring flaws inherent in our winner-take-all form of voting, which has produced a steady decline in voter participation, underrepresentation of racial minorities in office, lack of meaningful competition and choice in most elections, and the general failure of politics to mobilize, inform and inspire half the eligible electorate. But nothing changed. Democracy was an asterisk in political debate, typically encompassed in a vague reference to "campaign finance reform." Enter Florida.
The fiasco there provides a rare opportunity to rethink and improve our voting practices in a way that reflects our professed desire to have "every vote count." This conversation has already begun, as several highly educated communities in Palm Beach experienced the same sense of systematic disfranchisement that beset the area's poorer and less-educated communities of color. "It felt like Birmingham last night," Mari Castellanos, a Latina activist in Miami, wrote in an e-mail describing a mammoth rally at the 14,000-member New Birth Baptist Church, a primarily African-American congregation in Miami. "The sanctuary was standing room only. So were the overflow rooms and the school hall, where congregants connected via large TV screens. The people sang and prayed and listened. Story after story was told of voters being turned away at the polls, of ballots being destroyed, of NAACP election literature being discarded at the main post office, of Spanish-speaking poll workers being sent to Creole precincts and vice-versa.... Union leaders, civil rights activists, Black elected officials, ministers, rabbis and an incredibly passionate and inspiring Marlene Bastiene--president of the Haitian women's organization--spoke for two or three minutes each, reminding the assembly of the price their communities had paid for the right to vote and vowing not to be disfranchised ever again."
We must not let this once-in-a-generation moment pass without addressing the basic questions these impassioned citizens are raising: Who votes, how do they vote, whom do they vote for, how are their votes counted and what happens after the voting? These questions go to the very legitimacy of our democratic procedures, not just in Florida but nationwide--and the answers could lead to profound but eminently achievable reforms.
§ Who votes--and doesn't? As with the rest of the nation, in Florida only about half of all adults vote, about the same as the national average. Even more disturbing, nonvoters are increasingly low-income, young and less educated. This trend persists despite the Voting Rights Act, which since 1970 has banned literacy tests nationwide as prerequisites for voting--a ban enacted by Congress and unanimously upheld by the Supreme Court.
We are a democracy that supposedly believes in universal suffrage, and yet the differential turnout between high-income and low-income voters is far greater than in Europe, where it ranges from 5 to 10 percent. More than two-thirds of people in America with incomes greater than $50,000 vote, compared with one-third of those with incomes under $10,000. Those convicted of a felony are permanently banned from voting in Florida and twelve other states. In Florida alone, this year more than 400,000 ex-felons, about half of them black, were denied the opportunity to vote. Canada, on the other hand, takes special steps to register former prisoners and bring them into full citizenship.
§ How do they vote? Florida now abounds with stories of long poll lines, confusing ballots and strict limitations on how long voters could spend in the voting booth. The shocking number of invalid ballots--more ballots were "spoiled" in the presidential race than were cast for "spoiler" Ralph Nader--are a direct result of antiquated voting mechanics that would shame any nation, let alone one of the world's oldest democracies. Even the better-educated older voters of Palm Beach found, to their surprise, how much they had in common with more frequently disfranchised populations. Given how many decisions voters are expected to make in less than five minutes in the polling booth, it is common sense that the polls should be open over a weekend, or at least for twenty-four hours, and that Election Day should be a national holiday. By highlighting our wretched record on voting practices, Florida raises the obvious question: Do we really want large voter participation?
§ Whom do they vote for? Obviously, Florida voters chose among Al Gore, George Bush and a handful of minor-party candidates who, given their status as unlikely to win, were generally ignored and at best chastised as spoilers. But as many voters are now realizing, in the presidential race they were voting not for the candidates whose name they selected (or attempted to select) but for "electors" to that opaque institution, the Electoral College. Our constitutional framers did some things well--chiefly dulling the edge of winner-take-all elections through institutions that demand coalition-building, compromise and recognition of certain minority voices--but the Electoral College was created on illegitimate grounds and has no place in a modern democracy.
As Yale law professor Akhil Reed Amar argues, the Electoral College was established as a device to boost the power of Southern states in the election of the President. The same "compromise" that gave Southern states more House members by counting slaves as three-fifths of a person for purposes of apportioning representation (while giving them none of the privileges of citizenship) gave those states Electoral College votes in proportion to their Congressional delegation. This hypocrisy enhanced the Southern states' Electoral College percentage, and as a result, Virginia slaveowners controlled the presidency for thirty-two of our first thirty-six years.
Its immoral origins notwithstanding, the Electoral College was soon justified as a deliberative body that would choose among several candidates and assure the voice of small geographic areas. But under the Electoral College, voters in small states have more than just a voice; indeed their say often exceeds that of voters in big states. In Wyoming one vote in the Electoral College corresponds to 71,000 voters; in Florida, one electoral vote corresponds to 238,000 voters. At minimum we should eliminate the extra bias that adding electors for each of two senators gives our smallest states. As Robert Naiman of the Center for Economic and Policy Research reports, allowing each state only as many electors as it has members in the House of Representatives would mean, for example, that even if Bush won Oregon and Florida, he would have 216 and Gore would have 220 electoral votes.
Today its backers still argue that the Electoral College is necessary to insure that small states are not ignored by the presidential candidates. Yet the many states--including small ones--that weren't close in this election were neglected by both campaigns. Some of the nation's biggest states, with the most people of color, saw very little presidential campaigning and get-out-the-vote activity. Given their lopsided results this year, we can expect California, Illinois, New York, Texas and nearly all Southern states to be shunned in the 2004 campaign.
§ How are their votes counted? The presidency rests on a handful of votes in Florida because allocation of electoral votes is winner-take-all--if Gore wins by ten votes out of 6 million, he will win 100 percent of the state's twenty-five electoral votes. The ballots cast for a losing candidate are always "invalid" for the purposes of representation; only those cast for the winner actually "count." Thus winner-take-all elections underrepresent the voice of the minority and exaggerate the power of one state's razor-thin majority. Winner-take-all is the great barrier to representation of political and racial minorities at both the federal and the state level. No blacks or Latinos serve in the US Senate or in any governor's mansion. Third-party candidates did not win a single state legislature race except for a handful in Vermont.
Given the national questioning of the Electoral College sparked by the anomalous gap between the popular vote and the college's vote in the presidential election, those committed to real representative democracy now have a chance to shine a spotlight on the glaring flaws and disfranchisement inherent in winner-take-all practices and to propose important reforms.
What we need are election rules that encourage voter turnout rather than suppress it. A system of proportional representation--which would allocate seats to parties based on their proportion of the total vote--would more fairly reflect intense feeling within the electorate, mobilize more people to participate and even encourage those who do participate to do so beyond just the single act of voting on Election Day. Most democracies around the world have some form of proportional voting and manage to engage a much greater percentage of their citizens in elections. Proportional representation in South Africa, for example, allows the white Afrikaner parties and the ANC to gain seats in the national legislature commensurate with the total number of votes cast for each party. Under this system, third parties are a plausible alternative. Moreover, to allow third parties to run presidential candidates without being "spoilers," some advocate instant-runoff elections in which voters would rank their choices for President. That way, even voters whose top choice loses the election could influence the race among the other candidates.
Winner-take-all elections, by contrast, encourage the two major parties to concentrate primarily on the "undecideds" and to take tens of millions of dollars of corporate and special-interest contributions to broadcast ads on the public airwaves appealing to the center of the political spectrum. Winner-take-all incentives discourage either of the two major parties from trying to learn, through organizing and door-knocking, how to mobilize the vast numbers of disengaged poor and working-class voters. Rather than develop a vision, they produce a product and fail to build political capacity from the ground up.
§ What happens after the voting? Our nation is more focused on elections now than it has been for decades; yet on any given Sunday, more people will watch professional football than voted this November. What democracy demands is a system of elections that enables minor parties to gain a voice in the legislature and encourages the development of local political organizations that educate and mobilize voters.
Between elections, grassroots organizations could play an important monitoring role now unfulfilled by the two major parties. If the Bush campaign is right that large numbers of ballots using the same butterfly format were thrown out in previous elections in Palm Beach, then something is wrong with more than the ballot. For those Democratic senior citizens in Palm Beach, it was not enough that their election supervisor was a Democrat. They needed a vibrant local organization that could have served as a watchdog, alerting voters and election officials that there were problems with the ballot. No one should inadvertently vote for two candidates; the same watchdog organizations should require ballot-counting machines like those in some states that notify the voter of such problems before he or she leaves the booth. Voters should be asked, as on the popular TV quiz show, "Is that your final answer?" And surely we cannot claim to be a functioning democracy when voters are turned away from the polls or denied assistance in violation of both state and federal law.
Before the lessons of Florida are forgotten, let us use this window of opportunity to forge a strong pro-democracy coalition to rally around "one vote, one value." The value of a vote depends on its being fairly counted but also on its counting toward the election of the person the voter chose as her representative. This can happen only if we recognize the excesses of winner-take-all voting and stop exaggerating the power of the winner by denying the loser any voice at all.
On Tuesday, November 14, exactly one week after Election Day (and with no President yet in sight), a notable though little-noted disclosure was made to the public. I do not mean the news that the federal judge in Florida had turned down the Republicans' stop-the-hand-count motion, or the news that Bush's lead in Florida was now 388 votes, or the news that a Florida state judge had waffled on Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris's decree that no county votes would be counted if reported after the 5 pm deadline that afternoon, or, for that matter, anything else that was happening in the murk of the Sunshine State. I mean the news that, according to a poll released by the Washington Post and ABC News, 45 percent of the public wanted George Bush to become President whereas only 44 percent wanted Al Gore to become President (6 percent wanted "neither," 4 percent had no opinion and 1 percent wanted "other"). The claim was all the more striking in view of the hard contemporaneous fact that in the most recent count of the actual vote of November 7, Gore led Bush by a nationwide margin of 222,880 votes.
If anyone ever had doubts that politics in the United States is dominated by polling, this poll should put an end to them. A major poll was, in a manner of speaking, calling the election a full week after the vote--and reversing the known results.
The polls had been mercifully silent since the election. Many had good reason to be. Five of seven major ones had been "wrong" about the outcome of the election. That is, their final counts had failed to reflect the winner on Election Day (though some, it's true, were within the margin of error). The New York Times/CBS "final" poll, which put Bush at 46 percent and Gore at 41 percent, had the margin wrong by more than five points and Gore's final tally off by eight points. The Battleground poll, which gave Bush 50 percent to Gore's 45 percent, likewise got the margin wrong by five points. Others were more modestly in error. CNN gave Bush 48 percent and Gore 46 percent; in the Washington Post it was Bush 48 and Gore 45; and in the Pew Research Center poll (with undecided voters counted), it was Bush 49, Gore 47. Only the Zogby poll, which put Gore ahead in the popular vote by 48 to 46 percent, and a CBS election-morning tracking poll, which gave Gore 45 percent and Bush 44 percent, picked the right winner in the popular vote, and with a margin close to the actual result. All in all, Gore's victory in the popular vote came as a surprise. Of course, it's not literally true that the polls were wrong, since there is a margin of error, and people can change their minds between the day of the poll and the election. On the other hand, election results are the only check on the accuracy of polling that there is--they are to polling what experimentation is to scientific hypothesis--and there is no reason to suppose that a poll whose final measure is 8 percentage points off the election result is not 8 percentage points off year in, year out.
Considering the decisive importance that polling had throughout the race in every aspect of the campaign, including media coverage, fundraising and campaign strategy (in the last few weeks of the election, hearts were lifting and falling on single-point fluctuations in poll numbers), these discrepancies deserved much reflection. The reason they did not get it was that on election night the magicians of public opinion went on to make even more egregious and momentous errors, by prematurely predicting the winner in Florida twice and the winner of the national election once. (The election-night calls made by the television networks, which in turn are based on exit polling done by a single, nearly anonymous firm, the Voter News Service, are not quite the same as opinion polling, since they record a deed--voting--rather than an opinion, but their use of sampling techniques to predict outcomes places them in the same general category as other polls.)
The last of these mistakes, of course, led a credulous Gore to concede the election and then, minutes later, to retract the concession. For a few hours, the networks and the candidates appeared to have assumed the power to decide the election between them. There is every reason to believe, for instance, that George Bush would now be President-elect if, moments before his concession speech, Gore had not got the news that Florida had been declared undecided again. If Gore's concession had gone unretracted, Bush had made his acceptance speech and the country had gone to bed believing it had made its decision, it is scarcely imaginable that the close results in Florida would have been contested. Even now, many observers await a concession by one or another of the candidates as the decisive event. But it is not up to either the networks or the candidates to decide who is to be President; that matter is left under the Constitution to the voters, whose will, no matter how narrowly expressed, must be ascertained.
Then a week later, the polls that had played such an important and misleading role in the election were weighing in again, this time on the Florida battle. The poll that brought the startling, seemingly counterfactual news that Bush led Gore in the public's preference also revealed that six out of ten voters were opposed to legal challenges to the Florida results--possibly bad news for Gore, who had been considering a legal challenge to the infamous butterfly ballot in Palm Beach County. However, observers who did not like that conclusion could find comfort on the same day in a New York Times/CBS poll, which reported that another 6 in 10 were unworried about a delay in finally deciding upon the next President--good news for Gore, who had been relying on time-consuming hand recounts to erase Bush's narrow lead.
If, however, the arts of reading public opinion helped get us into our current mess, perhaps we can take comfort from the hope that they can also help us get out of it. Many observers have suggested that by failing to produce a clear mandate, the ever-changing vote-count of the year 2000--let's call it the Butterfly Election--will cripple the presidency of the winner. They need not worry too much. In our day, it is not only--perhaps not even mainly--elections that create mandates, once every four years. It is polling data that, day in and day out, create our impressions, however incompletely or inaccurately, of what the public wants. Let the new President act in a way that the public approves, as determined by a poll or two, and he will have all the mandate he needs to govern.
While Bush says counting votes by hand's unfair,
Gore gains--a bubbe here, a zayde there.
When George W. Bush spokesman James A. Baker III termed the fight
over the Florida vote recount "a black mark on our democracy," he
couldn't have been more wrong. At the time he said it on Sunday, Bush was
ahead in Florida by a mere 288 votes, and of course the full recount,
required by Florida law, is in order, as a federal judge ruled Monday.
Anyway, since when is political tumult and democracy a bad mix? Never
in our recent history has the vitality of our democracy been on such
splendid display, and it's disheartening that there are so many
frightened politicians and pundits panicked by this whiff of controversy.
What's wrong with a bit of electoral chaos and rancor? The
post-electoral debate over a rare photo finish is just the stuff that
made this country great. People should be outraged if their votes were
improperly counted--the founding fathers fought duels over less.
We have lectured the world about the importance of fair elections, and
we cannot get away with hiding the imperfections of our own system. Not
so imperfect as to require international observers for a full-scale
investigation under UN supervision, yet controversial enough to fully
engage the public. An election that once threatened to be boring beyond
belief has turned into a cliffhanger that is now more interesting than
reality-based TV entertainment. Indeed, it is reality-based TV
Never since John F. Kennedy eked out a suspicious victory over Richard
M. Nixon in 1960 has the proverbial man-in-the-street been so caught up
on the nuances of the electoral process. People who didn't even realize
we had an electoral college are now experts on it. But instead of
celebrating an election that people are finally excited about, driving
home the lesson for this and future generations that every vote counts,
the pundits are beside themselves with despair.
What hypocrites. They love every moment of increased media exposure
for themselves, while darkly warning of the danger to our system. Their
fears are nonsense. What is being demonstrated is that the system works:
Recounts, court challenges, partisan differences are a healthy response
to an election too close to call.
The fear-mongers hold out two depressing scenarios, one being that the
people will lose faith in the electoral process, and the other that
whoever wins the election will be weakened for lack of a mandate.
As to the former, the electoral process has never seemed more vital;
some who voted for Ralph Nader may be second-guessing their choices, and
states such as Florida and Oregon with primitive voting systems will no
doubt come into the modern age, but apathy has been routed, and next time
around, the presidential vote count will be the highest ever.
True, the candidate who finally wins will be weakened. He should be.
An election this close hardly provides the winner with a compelling
mandate, particularly if it is Bush, who may win the electoral college
majority while Al Gore is declared the winner of the popular vote. If
that turns out to be the case, Bush ought to tread with caution.
Compromise is good when not only the President is without a mandate
but so, too, the House and the Senate because of their razor-thin
outcomes. The country has come through eight incredibly prosperous and
relatively peaceful years, so why the rush to march down some new
uncharted course? Later for privatizing Social Security, a huge tax cut
for the super-rich and a $160-billion missile defense system--three mad
components of the core Republican program.
As for the Democrats, with or without Gore as President, it will be
the season for nothing more ambitious than damage control. With Gore, the
main weapon of reason would not be bold new programs that Congress would
ignore, but rather the threat of a veto to stop Republican mischief.
Without Gore, the responsibility will fall on the Democratic minority in
both branches of Congress to engage in a principled holding action
preparing for a congressional majority in 2002.
Odds are that Bush will be the President presiding over a nation that,
by a clear margin in the popular vote, rejected him for Gore. If Bush
wins the office, his challenge will be to prove that the moderate face he
presented during the election is truly his. If it isn't, and he attempts
to be a hero to the right wing of his party, he will wreck the GOP.
Clearly, future political power resides with the vibrant big cities and
modern suburbs, the sophisticated hot spots of the new economy, which
went for Gore, and not the backwater rural outposts that turned out to be
Bush country largely because men remain obsessed with their guns.