Want to start a fight between a Democrat and a Republican? Put them in the same room, whisper "Florida" under your breath, and run like crazy.
Signs that the United States is getting back to normal after September 11 come in the resurrection in the blogosphere of the November 2000 fiasco that saw George Bush officially defeat Al Gore by just 573 votes in this key state. Because of Florida, Bush had 270 electoral college votes. Because of the 573, a nation was won, and lost.
As many of you will remember, that official decision came only after about a month of recounts, legal wrangling, a near riot by Bush supporters, and highly partisan decisions by the Florida and national supreme courts. It's still a sore point. To Democrats, Florida was an election stolen by the Republicans: voting irregularities, intimidation of election officials by Republican supporters, and a partisan decision by the U.S. supreme court is ample proof of this. The Republicans point out that some of the voting irregularities were the Democrats fault or went in the Democrats' favour, and if Al Gore had been a good enough candidate to win either his home state or Bill Clinton's, Florida would not have been an issue.
As always in a debate as fractious and polarized as this, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. The tragedy is, neither the Democrats nor the Republicans are particularly interested in the truth. They only wanted victory.
Any professor of statistics would tell you that what should have happened in the state of Florida is a careful, state-wide, hand recount, going by a set of rules previously agreed to. Not that this would have been easy to do. Thanks to the fact that elections are run at the county level in the United States (the better to include county-only referendums on the same ballot on election day), and thanks to the wide disparity of resources available to county election commissions, not only would such a recount have to deal with millions of ballots, it would have to deal with dozens of different kinds of ballots.
Consider the Butterfly Ballot, an unusual design that lined candidate names on both sides of the spot where one was to record one's vote. A Democrat invention, this ballot probably resulted in Pat Buchanan getting well over 1000 votes more than he was supposed to -- votes that should have belonged to Gore -- but there is little to be done about that. Then there is the question of undervotes, where ballots marked primarily for Republican candidates or Democrat candidates being conspicuously blank when it came to selecting which candidate the voter preferred for president. Some of these punchcards had dimples, or partially removed chads, suggesting that a vote was cast, but the punchcard didn't record it properly. What votes among these do we count? Finally, there were the overvotes, where the preferred presidential candidate was clearly George Bush or Al Gore, by the mark beside their name, but also by the fact that the voter wrote in George Bush or Al Gore's name in the spot reserved for write in candidates, and selected that option too. They clearly wanted to vote for one of the candidates, but the computer recorded that as a spoiled ballot.
To get a result that most accurately reflected the true verdict of the Florida electorate, recounters needed time, patience, clear rules and widespread, non-partisan support. The Republicans and the Democrats conspired to give them none of these. Democrats focused their energies on a recount of undervote ballots in a handful of counties where this phenomenon seemed to be particularly common. They did not call for a full recount of the state and ask for a recount of the overvote ballots in all counties -- primarily because they did not appear to be the aggrieved party in those counties (initial reports suggested that George Bush lost a number of votes due to the overvote phenomenon, so it was the Bush campaign's responsibility to ask for a recount in this instance). Republicans focused their energies on simply stopping the Democrats' recounts. On the undervote issue, the Republican media machine went into overdrive, cycling "expert" after "expert" on the cameras, inflating the apparent number of recounts ("the votes have been counted, they have been recounted, and they have been recounted some more" -- in reality, they'd only been fully recounted twice, and not completely by hand) and circling stories that thousands of chads were miraculously falling out of punchcard ballots.
So, Democrats focused their attention not on a state-wide recount designed to find the truth, but on a selective recount designed to help them win. Republicans worked only to thwart the Democrat recount and achieve victory; they didn't try to find out who really won, either. Ironically, subsequent unofficial recounts of the overvotes suggest that Gore would have gained enough votes to take the state, so the Democrats really shot themselves in the foot by not pushing for a proper state-wide recount. The Democrats are whining because a nasty political fight didn't turn their way, but neither side can claim much moral high-ground, here, because neither side put the truth, or the good of the country, over their own partisan interests.
It is wrong, however, for Republicans to blithely dismiss the whinging of Democrats. The Florida election battle should disturb all Americans because of what it unveiled. It unveiled serious flaws in the very structure of American democracy. It revealed aging election equipment on the verge of breaking down. These problems have received scant attention. The serious concerns about possible replacement systems have likewise been ignored. The next election looks as likely to raise similar questions about the veracity of the results as the last.
It also unveiled two political parties more interested in their own political gain than they were in the best interests of their nation. Both the supposedly-impartial Florida and U.S. Supreme Courts broke along blatantly political lines, and most people seem perturbed only about the one court decision that ran counter to their political point of view, not both. A constitutional crisis almost occurred because both sides wanted to win so badly, neither stopped to think that perhaps because the election was so close, the nation itself was deeply divided and desperately in need of real compromise.
This argument applies to Al Gore's backers as much as George Bush's, but since the events worked out in such a way to give George Bush the election, he bears the brunt of this responsibility to resolve this. He's in charge. November 2000 was the most divisive election in the United States since the eve of the Civil War, with less than a percentage point separating the top two presidential candidates (any professor of statistics will tell you that this is a tie). Did George Bush take this into account and compromise controversial Republican principles to govern for the whole of the nation?
Despite attempts to place a token Democrat in his cabinet (much to the chagrin of conservatives), the agenda his presidency has pursued since November 2000 has been quite conservative, despite the fact that, as a whole, the nation he governs isn't. He has continued to pursue a program of hefty tax cuts that have devastated the government's fiscal balance, achieved little in the way of results, and which more than half of the voting public voted against. Despite a brief swing of bipartisanship in the wake of September 11 (during which a number of ultra-conservatives grumbled about Bush selling out), Bush and his Republicans have been playing for keeps, ignoring the wishes of over 50% of the population because the constitution granted them full power.
And what about that other forgotten national divide, where almost half of all voting-age Americans have become so disgusted with the process that they've chosen not to vote? Who has attempted to reach out to them? Nobody. Instead, the Democrats and the Republicans continue to wrestle in the dark, biting, poking and gouging, while the American democratic system gets progressively weaker.
I think that the two party system in America is killing American democracy, that and the increasing selfishness of politicians. The Democrats and the Republicans need to be broken up into equally strong smaller parties, so that nobody can get 50.1% and assume that this gives them a full mandate to run the place. All parties (especially the Republicans at this point because, remember, they're in charge) need to realize that they don't have all the answers, and those that oppose them are not fools and rogues for their opposition. Politicians might talk about respecting different opinions, but in Washington they've become less able to work with such opinions, achieving meaningful compromises, and not painting their opponents as the spawn of Satan.
The 2004 election may not have a Florida fiasco, but it looks set to be just as divisive to the United States as the last election, and everybody's at fault. Victory now trumps all, even truth. To the Democrats and the Republicans in Washington I say: a plague on both your houses. You are making worms' meat of America.