Posted on November 13, 2000 in Washington Watch

We are living in a remarkable time. It has, by now, become a cliché to observe that there has never been an election like the one currently unfolding in the United States. The nation sits transfixed before their televisions watching daily reports from Florida and competing news conferences from the Bush and Gore camps. “Election 2000” has become the latest in a series of media spectacles: the O.J. Simpson trial, the impeachment proceedings and now this.

The situation is critical and it requires resolution. After all, the presidency of the United States is at stake. But a resolution to this crisis will not be a simple affair since it has political, legal and even constitutional dimensions.

One aspect of the uniqueness of this election is its closeness. It appears that the American electorate is divided right down the middle. Over 100,000,000 votes were cast and Al Gore, it appears won the popular vote count–but by less than two-tenths of one percent. Not only that, the U.S. Senate, it appears, may also be divided 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats. And the House of Representatives is also almost equally divided between the two parties, with Republicans holding a mere nine-vote edge out of 435 seats. This is the most even split in the two legislative bodies in U.S. history.

Just how remarkable this election has been, becomes clear when one looks at the individual races of the members of Congress and the 50 state votes for the president. A significant number of those were decided with only a single percent providing the margin of victory. Recounts are underway in a number of these races.

But it is not the Congress that is the focus of the nation’s attention, it is the unresolved presidential election that has preoccupied Americans these days. Since the United States presidency is not determined by the popular vote, Al Gore is not the winner. The presidency is decided by what is known as the electoral vote. Each state is given as many electoral votes as it has members of Congress and Senators combined. All total there are 538 electoral votes (435 for Congress, 100 for the number of Senators and three for the District of Columbia). If a candidate wins the popular votes in a state, he wins that state’s total number of electoral votes. To win the presidency a candidate must win enough states to win 270 electoral votes, that is the majority of the 538.

At last count, Al Gore had won enough states to have 260 electoral votes. George W. Bush, on the other hand, has 246 electoral votes. Two states have not yet had their total votes counted. Oregon, which has a unique mail-in vote system, still has not awarded its seven electoral votes. The biggest prize, however, is Florida whose 25 electoral votes could give a victory to either Gore or Bush.

In the very early hours of the morning after the election, Bush appeared to be leading Gore in Florida by 1,700 votes out of almost 6,000,000 total votes cast. That was close enough to require an automatic recount. That procedure is still not complete, but with more results in, it appears now that only 327 votes separate the two candidates.

One county’s votes may not be recounted for a week since a judge has ordered a halt to the process until he can hold a hearing to determine if there were, as Democrats have charged, irregularities in the way the ballot was constructed in that county and the way votes were counted, as well. Democrats have charged that, in addition to other irregularities, 19,000 ballots were destroyed and not counted in that county because a faulty ballot design led voters to make mistakes in filling it out.

Some are filing other protests with regard to conduct of the Florida election. In some areas, there are charges of voters being harassed and intimidated. There are also suggestions of miscounts and lost ballot boxes.

Republicans counter charge that if the Democrats persist in making these charges, they may decide to contest elections in other states where Vice President Gore won by only a narrow margin. Gore, for example, only won New Mexico and Iowa by 5,000 votes each and Wisconsin by a mere 6,000 votes.

In a real sense, both parties are playing with fire. On the one hand, given the irregularities that have been reported it is important to resolve the election to create public confidence in its outcome. On the other hand, it may be dangerous to look too closely at the election process. Elections are like hot dogs. They taste great and are enjoyed by millions. But people don’t really want to know what’s in them or how they are made.

Historically, there are always irregularities and abuses in our elections–of lesser magnitude, of course and in only one recent instance was the outcome of the presidency at stake. There were charges and counter-charges of fraud in the 1960 election that saw John Kennedy narrowly defeat Richard Nixon for the presidency.

But there were several differences between that era and today’s environment that makes comparisons difficult.

In the first place, today’s press is more intrusive and sensationalistic. More than just reporting the news, today’s media makes the news. Back then, Kennedy’s affairs were not reported. Today, on the other hand, Clinton’s affairs were the only topic of discussion–24 hours a day, seven days a week. Similarly, the allegations of ballot fraud in 1960 were reported as straight and brief news items after the election was over. The allegations of ballot confusion in this election have become the subject of round the clock coverage.

An additional difference is the sharpness of today’s partisan battles in Washington. Kennedy may have won a close election, but his party had control of the Congress. And, as was the case back then, the winning president also received initial support from the opposition. Neither Bush nor Gore can count on the same support. The same right-wing radio talk shows that led an eight year campaign against Bill Clinton are now inciting against Al Gore and the Democrats. Meanwhile, Jesse Jackson is leading demonstrations of disenfranchised voters in Florida. All of this is playing out on television before a national audience that is sharply divided 50-50 between the two parties. With so much bitterness and division, resolution of this controversy will not be easy.

Given this backdrop, the situation for the next president, whoever emerges victorious, will be a difficult one. With Gore having won the popular vote, if only by a hair, and with serious questions of fairness having been raised in Florida, even if Bush wins the recount in that state, there will always be a cloud over his presidency. And some Democrats, still upset over the long drawn out impeachment proceedings that crippled the Clinton Administration, will not rest easy during the next four years.

Similarly, if Al Gore wins the recount and legal challenge in Florida, he will also be in the difficult position of attempting to govern an extremely divided country and an angry Republican Party.

But what is also clear and what might ultimately emerge as the most important message of this entire affair is that, with all of the rancor and the harsh partisanship, the United States is a country that functions on the basis of the rule of law. There may be demonstrations and angry words, but Americans, whether Democrats or Republicans, are recounting ballots, filing complaints in court or simply sitting at home watching the drama unfold on television.

The stakes are enormous and feelings are quite intense. The winner will face a divided government and a divided society. But there will be no constitutional crisis and no tanks rolling down Pennsylvania Avenue. Come 2001, we will peacefully install a new president–whomever it may be.

As President Clinton noted on the day after the election “the people have spoken, what we are now attempting to do is to understand precisely what they said.”

To do so will take time. Until then, as former President Jimmy Carter, a frequent observer of foreign elections, noted, “We need to take a deep breath and let this process work itself out.”

It is fascinating, frustrating and sometimes, even an agonizing spectacle. In the end we may know a lot more about what goes into the hot dog and how it is made then we ever wanted to know. But for the legitimacy of this election and for the satisfaction of the almost 50 million voters whose candidate will lose–all questions must be resolved. That is the only way to move forward.

For comments, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org.

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