The Myth of the Stolen Election

The serious political season is about to begin, and the preliminaries that have occurred to date suggest it will be an extremely bitter one. While most Americans go about their daily lives, not thinking all that much about politics, both conservative and liberal partisans are deeply engaged in the forthcoming Presidential election contest.


Elections in which vengeful anger is the strongest motivating force for one or more sides, deviate from the American norm. Rhetoric, tactics, strategy, judgment, and voter turnout are all affected, often in surprising ways, and blunders, major and minor, become even more common than usual.


While the ideological divide between the two sides often has been quite sharp, the current level of personal bitterness is unusually high, by recent historical standards.  In this election cycle, the tone of ugliness is being set on the left. Established liberal writers for respected publications, notably Jonathan Chait in the New Republic, have written lengthy defenses of why they hate George Bush. Chait's argument includes in equal parts policy differences with Bush, loathing of Bush's personal style (his Southernness, his lack of intellectual curiosity, his religiousness), and the bloody sheet that the left will wave this year: Bush's 'stolen election' of 2000. 

The emotional and political divide separating right and left in this country has become obsessive. The left is obsessed with the evil that is George Bush, and the need to get rid of him.  The Democrats seem prepared to nominate as their candidate for President, the angriest of the Bush haters running, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean.  In a September 25th Democratic candidates' debate, Dean stated: 'We need to remember that the enemy here is George Bush, not each other.'  And by extension, the enemy therefore is also not Osama Bin laden, Saddam Hussein, nor Kim Jong—il. 


Paul Krugman, op ed columnist for the New York Times, and contender for the title of most obsessive Bush—hater, described the anger faction's perspective on January 2 : 'Most Democrats feel, with justification, that we're facing a national crisis—that the right, ruthlessly exploiting 9/11, is making a grab for total political dominance.'  Krugman's idea of a national crisis is that the Republicans might get Bush re—elected, and increase their narrow margins in the Congress. 


The right has had its own obsession in recent years, in its loathing of Bill Clinton.  But this time around, anger management is a need mostly of the left.


Today, the right's enemies are the enemies of the United States—region>, whether they be in Afghanistan—region>, Iraq—region>, or Saudi Arabia—region>, or even hiding out in America—region>. Certainly many Democrats also want America—region> to be successful in these efforts. But for the agenda—setting, activist faction of the left, defeating George Bush takes precedence over beating back al Qaeda.

The statements made by the Democratic field of Presidential candidates in the run—up to their primaries leaves no doubt that the 'stolen election' of 2000 will be a constant refrain this year . Certain parts of the fable surrounding this alleged theft have been repeated so often that they are viewed as established fact by many partisans on the left.  A documentary film, consumed with outrage over the 'stolen election' is currently playing at such trendy venues as Chicago's Gene Siskel Theatre. Unprecedented: the 2000 Presidential Election, a 50 minute screed by Richard R. Perez and Joan Sekler, instructs its viewers how tens of thousands of African Americans 'were illegally but strategically disqualified as convicted felons," according to one approving reviewer.


The Democrats seem determined to keep the 2000 election  issue alive, even though it failed miserably as a rallying cry against Jeb Bush, who won a resounding 56% to 43% re—election victory in the 2002 Florida Governor's race. It is worth examining the mythology and the real, not—so—ancient history of the 'stolen election'. 


It is ironic that among the angriest of those who charge that Bush's election was illegitimate, are many who did not even support Al Gore for President. Michael Moore has made the 'stolen election' a core element of his books and speeches since 2000. Yet Moore was an advocate for Ralph Nader, who won over 92,000 votes in Florida in 2000. Had Nader not run, or prominent leftists like Moore not supported him, perhaps enough Nader voters would have trickled over to the Gore column to enable him to win Florida. The anger over the 'stolen election' in many cases may be deflected guilt over some sense of responsibility for allowing Bush to win. 

Gary Wills, in his new book on Thomas Jefferson and slavery, accuses Jefferson of winning the election of 1800 by capturing the votes of states in which the slaves were counted as 3/5 persons, a device which padded the Congressional and therefore Electoral College representation of the slave states. He seems to find this comparable in some way to Bush's 'blitzkrieg of lawyers' who helped steal the 2000 election.  Wills's language is not accidental. Just as critics of Israel's policies love to diminish Israel, by analogizing Israel's behavior to apartheid South Africa or the Nazis, Wills's use of the word 'blitzkrieg' is designed to suggest that Bush and his fascist—like right wing hordes stole the recent election. 


It is, I think, fair to claim that the election of 2000 was disputed. It was fought over for 37 days, in a myriad of lawsuits filed in individual Florida counties, in Florida state courts and in federal courts.  But the truth of the matter is that the vast majority of the lawsuits  in Florida were initiated by Gore supporters, and not by Bush supporters. Bush was the defendant in these cases, Gore the litigant. Hundreds of Gore lawyers flew into Tallahassee on election night. Thousands more were recruited over the internet, and eagerly joined the fight. David Boies, considered by some to be America—region>'s toughest litigator, was recruited by the Gore team. If there was a lawyer blitzkrieg in the Florida election fight, it was a Democratic Party assault force.


Certainly, the Bush team  responded, and recruited first class legal talent of its own. The Bush team sought relief in federal courts after decisions by the Florida Supreme Court twice overruled lower Florida courts that went against Gore.


Most significantly, the Bush team won every important decision by a court in Florida, except for two decisions by the Florida Supreme Court, a partisan Democrat court if there ever were one. All seven members of this court had initially been appointed by a Democrat governor. Ignoring both Florida law (e.g., the date when all counties had to report their results to the Secretary of State) and the decisions of the lower courts, the Florida Supreme Court used its power to keep the election dispute alive, in the hope, presumably, that some recount would eventually put Gore ahead.


The unspoken truth of the 2000 election dispute in Florida is always ignored by the left: Gore never led;  not on election night, not after any statewide recount, not after adding the votes from county hand recounts, and not even in the exhaustive statewide post—election recounts conducted by the major state and national newspapers (in almost all of which Bush wound up ahead when any consistent method of counting was used.) Pick your method of counting chads, and it doesn't matter. Bush won.

Another myth is that Gore simply wanted all the votes counted. This is absolutely false. Gore lawyers and their supporters attempted to disqualify votes of some military voters overseas, and of absentee voters in several Florida counties. Both groups, not surprisingly, strongly supported Bush.


On the other hand, they tried to create votes that the machines had determined contained no vote for President (the 'undervote'), but only in four heavily Democratic counties: Broward, Dade, Palm Beach, and Volusia.  In each of these counties, Democratic Party officials would control the hand count of the 'undervote.'  So this was no exercise in civic minded duty — the logic was to find votes for Gore, and cancel votes for Bush. 

The left likes to say that the United States Supreme Court gave the election to Bush. They did no such thing. What they did was reverse the Florida Supreme Court's effort to keep on counting until Gore won.  The U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Bush v Gore may not have been a model of jurisprudence, but the left also ignores the fact that the decision to over—rule the Florida Supreme Court was not a 5—4 decision dictated by the five conservative members of the Court, but a 7 to 2 decision. Even two liberals on the Court were offended by the machinations of the Florida court and its creation of a chaotic vote counting system for the 'undervotes'.

The system decreed by the Florida Supreme Court in its 4 to 3 ruling (bitterly condemned by the Court's own Chief Justice as 'overreaching') would have allowed inconsistent rules for counting the 'undervotes' even within an individual county. For example, the Florida Supreme Court decided to accept the results of a partially completed hand recount performed in Dade County by a group of county officials using one set of rules and then add to it the results of a hand recount of the remainder of the county's 'undervote' to be performed by a different set of counters in Tallahassee,  whose counting rules were not established. 


The Florida Supreme Court also decided to accept the results of hand recounts completed in Broward, Volusia and Palm Beach Counties, though each county had established very different standards for identifying which partially punched ballots were to be considered actual votes. (Broward had adopted the most liberal standard, and gave Gore his biggest boost during the 37 day period: almost 600 net votes.) 


No clear rules for how to count or not count the 'undervote' in Florida's other counties were established by the Florida Supreme Court, and seven U.S. Supreme Court justices concluded this new Florida counting system was so arbitrarily varied from county to county that it denied some Florida voters the equal protection of the law, guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. In retrospect, the U.S. Supreme Court action probably prevented the theft of the election in Florida from occurring.

Nationwide, Gore won a plurality (not a majority) of the reported popular vote tally, leading Bush by approximately 540,000 votes, a 0.5% margin, while losing narrowly to Bush in the Electoral College (271—266). This split between the popular and electoral College results in the 2000 election has its historical parallels, which diminish the contention that a deep historic injustice was done.


In 1824, Andrew Jackson won 44% of the popular vote in a 4—man race, and won the most Electoral College votes. John Quincy Adams won only 30% of the popular vote, and was second in the Electoral College vote. But Adams was elected president by the House of Representatives, since no candidate had won a majority of the Electoral College vote.


In both the 1876 and 1888 elections, the eventual Electoral College and presidential winner was also the popular vote loser. In 1876, the popular vote winner, Samuel Tilden, defeated Rutherford B. Hayes by 3% in the popular vote, but a commission awarded all disputed electoral votes to Hayes, giving him a one vote Electoral College victory. In 1888, President Grover Cleveland won the popular vote by just under 1% over Benjamin Harrison, but lost the Electoral College vote to Harrison decisively, and so the presidency. 


Hence, in 1824, 1876, and 1888, the popular vote winners won broader popular vote victories than Gore did in 2000, and all still lost the election. What happened to Gore (winning a popular vote plurality by a small margin, yet losing the Electoral College vote by a small margin) was not earth—shattering nor precedent—setting. It had happened before, and will likely happen again.

The US Supreme Court decision over—ruling the Florida Supreme Court had two parts: the first a 7 to 2 vote over—ruling the vote counting system established by the Florida Supreme Court ; the second a 5 to 4 vote, requiring the vote count to be concluded almost immediately so that Florida could participate in the Electoral College process.


Had the second decision been 5 to 4 the other way, it is likely that the Florida count would not have been concluded in time for the state to determine a winner and select a slate of electors to the Electoral College. In that case, one of two scenarios would have played out. One is that the Florida legislature, Republican dominated, would have selected the Bush electors to vote in the Electoral College. Alternatively, no Florida electors would have been selected, and neither Bush nor Gore would have won a majority of the Electoral College vote. In that case, the US House of Representatives, voting by states (as in 1824), would have picked Bush since the GOP controlled more state delegations than the Democrats.  So even if the 5—4 portion of the U.S. Supreme Court decision had gone the other way, Bush would still have become our President. 


With the benefit of hindsight provided by the post—election newspaper recounts, we now know that the charge that the U.S. Supreme Court awarded the election to Bush by stopping the recount, cannot be sustained, even assuming the Florida statewide recount could have been completed in time.   These newspaper recounts revealed that had the hand recount of the 'undervote' been allowed to be completed statewide, Bush would have won anyway, using almost every consistently applied standard that was considered by the newspapers. Do the Democratic partisans mean to argue that the U.S. Supreme Court was wrong in its 7 to 2 decision to over—rule the Florida Supreme Court?  Is it their contention that it should have allowed the enormous inconsistency in the county by county and even individual by individual standards applied to the hand recount that the Florida Supreme Court decision permitted, so long as they produced their desired result?  This sounds like a preference for Cook County style graveyard voting, so long as it puts a particular candidate over the top.    

It is also worth noting, that with the exception of Florida, every other state that was decided by less than 1% in the 2000 election went to Gore:  New Mexico, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Oregon. These four states combined had 30 Electoral College votes, 5 more than Florida.  While there were murky circumstances surrounding the Gore victories in every one of them, the results were not contested by any Bush 'lawyer blitzkrieg' in any of them.  In fact, the Democrats know more about winning close federal elections than the Republicans, in recent years. In the past five years, Democrats have won Senate elections in South Dakota, Nevada and Washington State, by an average margin of 0.1% of the total vote cast.

The charges of theft in Florida continue to be argued self—righteously by Gore partisans because of his thin national popular vote victory. But there are ample reasons to dispute the contentions, which they weave together in a grand theme of Republican vote suppression:

1. Democrats charge that Florida Governor Jeb Bush suppressed the black vote (which went over 90% for  Gore), by using police roadblocks on election day to inhibit voting by blacks, and by clearing the voting rolls of felons— in an alleged attempt to remove black voters from the voter lists months before the election. The roadblock charge, loudly broadcast by race warriors Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, among others, has found zero documentary evidence to support it, though it is still repeated as if it were true in black churches and on black—oriented radio stations.


As for felon votes, Florida law prohibited their voting. Had Jeb Bush not taken the action he did before the election, many felons would surely have been able to vote. It is certainly possible that some names which were purged from the voter rolls were of individuals mistakenly identified as felons. But in every election, there are errors in the voting rolls, and some people wind up not voting, or more often, have to prove their eligibility at the polls. If Jeb Bush had been aiming to inhibit a large black turnout, he surely failed. The percentage of all votes in Florida in 2000, which were cast by black voters, was much higher than in previous elections, and the black turnout percentage, fired up by vicious anti—Bush TV and radio advertising, may have exceeded the white turnout percentage.

2. Democrats charge that the butterfly ballot in Palm Beach County was designed to confuse voters. This is nonsense. The ballot was designed by a Palm Beach County official who was a loyal Democratic Party member, aiming to make it easier for elderly voters to read the ballot. Sometimes there are unintended consequences when you try to do the right thing. Probably, very few elderly Jewish voters in the county meant to vote for Pat Buchanan for President. But some of them did, and other Palm Beach County voters apparently made a similar mistake.

But the facts of life are that there are no election do—overs for those who make errors when they vote. 

3. Democrats charge that many votes for Gore were not counted. Many voters in Florida cast two votes for President (there were about two double votes for each 'undervote' in the state). In every state, a vote for two candidates for President disqualifies your vote; and Florida is no exception. So too, with the 'undervotes:' if you don't punch through your punch card ballot completely, the machine won't read your vote. The machine is politically neutral in kicking out unreadable ballots; the human counters, as was clear during the 37—day process, were not.

It may well be that if no voters had made mistakes, either by voting for Buchanan in Palm Beach County, or casting two votes for President, Gore would have won in Florida.  But the vote which counts is the vote that is not spoiled, not the might—have—been count, had everyone followed instructions.
4. Some Democrats charge that Fox News called Bush the winner, because the network was in Bush's pocket. Other networks followed, and Bush was therefore presumed to be the winner once the recount started, giving him a public opinion advantage. This too is revisionist history. All the networks initially called Gore the winner (Fox News included), based on a faulty exit poll by the now—discredited and disbanded Voter News Service, which had been owned collectively by the major TV networks and AP wire service.


When Fox and the other networks changed their call and gave the state to Bush, that was hours later, and lasted only an hour or so, before the Florida popular vote tightened, and the state was reclassified by all the networks as too close to call.  Within an hour after that, the Gore lawyers were en route to Tallahassee. If Bush had a public opinion edge nationally during the recount, it was because he was the winner in the popular vote count in the state on election night, as well as after a statewide recount, after military ballots were added, and in each subsequent hand recount in a particular county in the state.

One almost completely ignored story is the fact that when all the networks gave  Florida to Gore soon after the polls closed in most of the state (the counties in the Eastern time zone), the polls were still open in the panhandle  area of the state, which is in the Central time zone. The panhandle was Bush's strongest area in the state: the part of Florida that most resembles the rest of the South.  He won by about 2 to 1 in this region. Yet, there were about 20 minutes remaining to vote in the Central time zone section of the state, when the networks called the state for Gore, despite their pledge not to call a winner in any state while its polls were still open. But even more important is the fact that every major network began broadcasting the 'fact' that the polls were closed statewide in Florida, when there was still an hour left to vote in its Central time zone counties.


A comparison of the county—by—county presidential vote in Florida in 1996 and 2000 shows that the percentage increase in turnout was smaller  in all the Central time zone counties, than the increase in voter participation in the rest of the state. Could this have been caused by the broadcasters' premature announcement that the polls were already closed statewide, when an hour remained to vote in these Republican leaning counties in the pandhandle? Might the wrong early call that Gore won the state also have contributed to the lower—than—expected panhandle turnout?  Had voter participation rates increased in the Florida panhandle to the same degree as the rest of the state, Bush might have picked up a net 10,000 votes, if his 2/3 margin in the panhandle held among the missing late voters. This would have vastly supplemented his final 537 vote margin.  In other words, Bush would have won the state by enough on election night that the 37 day war of the lawyers would never have occurred.

There is plenty of evidence from previous national elections that were decided early in the evening (1964 for Johnson, 1972 for Nixon, 1984 for Reagan), that turnout on the West Coast was suppressed by the networks' early call of the presidential race based on Eastern state totals. Many voters in Florida and elsewhere vote at the end of the voting day. Most voting stations allow anyone in line at the scheduled poll closing time to cast their votes.  If the polling places were crowded at the end of the day in the panhandle counties, might some voters have chosen to go home, rather than wait in line to vote, after hearing that the presidential race was decided? Might many other potential voters in the Central time zone counties have simply given up on the idea of even going to the polling places, once the incorrect information was broadcast that the polls in the state were already closed? 


Not a single network anchor qualified his comment about the polls having closed in Florida, by indicating that they remained open in the Central time zone section of the state.  The statistical comparisons of 1996 and 2000 suggest that turnout in the panhandle was significantly suppressed by the false announcement that polls were closed statewide, and by the early call by the networks that Gore had won the state.

The conclusion from all this is pretty clear. Florida had a very close election for President in 2000. It was so close that it was almost a tie. But by every official count that was made at any time during the 37 day recount period, and using virtually every consistent method for counting 'undervotes' that was considered after the election, Bush won Florida and the Presidency. I will say it again. Bush won Florida. He did not steal it.