The 2000 presidential election was an in-broad-daylight assault on both the concept of democracy and its practice in the United States. Democrat Al Gore received 543,895 more votes nationwide than Republican George Bush. Unfortunately, because American presidential elections are not decided by the voters but by an antiquated and anti-democratic Electoral College, that didn’t mean much. Nor did it mean much that a clear plurality of voters in the contested state of Florida went to the polls with the intention of giving that state’s electoral votes to Gore, and with those electoral votes the presidency. The documented chicanery of the president’s brother, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, and his campaign co-chair, former Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, in combination with the machinations of a Bush-Cheney political machine headed by political czar Karl Rove, created the opening for a U.S. Supreme Court intervention that prevented an honest count of the ballots and installed Bush in the White House.
NAACP President Kwesi Mfume said bluntly, and correctly, that in 2000 the high court “handed over” the presidency to Bush.
The 2004 presidential election saw a modestly less blatant, yet equally concerning, assault. Pre-election manipulation of the registration and voting processes in the key swing state of Ohio by another Bush campaign co-chair, Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, made it possible for the Republican ticket to secure an election night “result” that was of dubious legitimacy, and circumstances taht made the ensuing recount an inconclusive exercise in frustration. Thus, Ohio’s electoral votes and the presidency went to Bush.
But Blackwell and his fellow partisans could not hide the reality that, as Lou Harris, the father of modern political polling, explained: “Ohio was as dirty an election as America has ever seen. You look at the turnout and votes in individual precincts, compared to the historic patterns in those counties, and you can tell where the discrepancies are. They stand out like a sore thumb.”
In 2000, the official response to the Florida crisis was as disjointed as it was ineffectual. While Gore aides, Democratic operatives and some union and civil rights leaders pushed back, a lack of urgency, focus and strategy made them no match for Rove and his operatives.
In 2004, it was actually worse. Where Gore and his team had fought, however ineffectively, for an accurate count, Democratic nominee John Kerry conceded and refused to back a recount. It fell to grassroots activists, led by Green Party campaigners and eventually key members of the Congressional Black Caucus, to mount challenges that never attained the media coverage that should have been accorded their struggle.
The bottom line from both 2000 and 2004 is this: Smart, engaged activists from across the country were caught unprepared for monumental struggles over not just clean elections and electoral votes but, in a very real sense, the future of the republic.
Good people tried to intervene. But it was too little, too late. Mistakes made in the hours and days after the presidential elections in each of those two years would haunt the process to its conclusion — or, to be more precise, to an inconclusive moment when power would be allocated without legitimacy.
Will it be any different this year?
Let’s be clear about a couple things:
1. The nation’s voting systems are as disjointed and contradictory as ever. No two states are apply the same standards for registering, voting, counting or recounring ballots. Thus, an American’s chances of getting his or her vote cast and counted varies from location to location.
2. There is a good deal of evidence from Michigan, Montana, Wisconsin and other battleground (or potentially close) states to suggest that this election will be characterized by confusion, conflict and challenges to the results.
What should smart activists be doing?
Preparing to say, without caution or compromise, that they will not sit idly by and allow another presidential election to be gamed.
That’s what the Rev. Jesse Jackson, populist leader Jim Hightower, author Barbara Ehrenreich, singer Holly Near, activist Tom Hayden, Rabbi Michael Lerner and other activists, academics and writers — including this author — were thinking when we signed on to the call to action for the “No More Stolen Elections!” campaign that launches this week.
The campaign asks Americans to take a simple pledge:
“I remember Florida 2000 and Ohio 2004, and I am willing to take action in 2008 if the election is stolen again.
I support efforts to protect the right to vote leading up to and on Election Day, November 4th.
I pledge to join nationwide pro-democracy protests starting on November 5th, either in my community, in key states where fraud occurred, or in Washington, D.C..
I pledge: No More Stolen Elections!”
This is not a Democratic or a Republican pledge. It is not a liberal or a conservative pledge. It is an American pledge, a commitment to defend our democracy — and our future.
George Bush assumed the presidency in a lawless moment when the structures and traditions of our electoral process were disregarded in favor of an “orderly” transfer of power. Bush took that power and used it, again and again, in a manner that dismissed the rule of law as an inconvenience to be worked around rather than expected.
No matter who our next president may be, he must come to the Oval Office not just with power but with legitimacy.
The “No More Stolen Elections!” campaign is an essential corrective for our troubled electoral processes and for our troubled republic.
To learn more about the campaign, the call to action and the plan to implement it, visit the www.nomorestolenelections.org website and sign on for a democratic election, an honest vote count and a legitimate president.