Florida and the U.S. Election

It really was a dark and stormy night. Outside the great dome of the Texas legislature in Austin, long after midnight, thousands of George W. Bush supporters huddled ankle-deep in chill rainwater from the cloudbursts that periodically soaked the anxious city. Their champion had already died politically and been resurrected once that evening - and now the outcome was again in doubt. Moments before, the giant TV screens had proclaimed "Bush wins." Now, they cautioned that the presidential race was too close to call. The crowd had run the gamut of emotions - from despair to elation and, finally, to a numbness born of fatigue, cold and confusion. "I can't stand it any more," sighed Natalie Redle, a 22-year-old Bush backer. "Can't they just figure it out?"

Well, no. And while the public scene was extraordinary enough, it was no match for the bizarre drama being played out just offstage. Barely 200 m away, at the stately Texas governor's mansion, Bush sat upstairs waiting for Vice-President Al Gore to publicly concede the election. Gore had already telephoned Bush, congratulated him on his victory and set off in a limousine to address his despondent supporters in Nashville. Then, at 3:45 a.m., Gore called back and did what no one had ever done in a presidential contest: he told Bush that the result in Florida was too close to call, and he would fight on after all. "You mean to tell me, Mr. Vice-President, you're retracting your concession?" an incredulous Bush asked. Aides who overheard Gore's side of the conversation said later that his response was: "You don't have to be snippy about it."

It may have been the strangest week ever in American politics, which is saying a lot. A dead man (the late Mel Carnahan) was elected to the U.S. Senate from Missouri. A First Lady (Hillary Clinton) was also elected to the Senate - something that once seemed earth-shaking, but was almost reduced to a footnote amid a barrage of unprecedented twists. After a seemingly endless campaign, it looked as though Americans would have to endure an election without end.

At first, it looked as though the outcome was little more than an exciting political cliffhanger following a closely fought campaign. Gore edged Bush in the overall popular vote by just 222,880 ballots out of some 105 million cast nationwide - the smallest margin since John F. Kennedy beat Richard Nixon in 1960 by a mere 118,574 votes. But the result in the electoral college, where the presidential election is actually decided, was still up in the air, with the entire contest turning on a painfully slow recount in Florida. If Bush's razor-thin apparent win there was confirmed, he would be awarded the state's 25 electoral votes, gain the bare majority of 271 needed for victory - and become the 43rd president of the United States.

That all changed when Gore's campaign declared what amounted to a legal and public relations war to win Florida - and thus the presidency. As Gore himself remained publicly aloof - at one point having himself photographed casually playing touch football back in Washington with his family - squads of Democratic lawyers headed by his campaign chairman, William Daley, landed in Florida to contest the result. Daley claimed that thousands of Gore supporters in one county, Palm Beach, were cheated out of their vote by a confusing ballot that led them to vote mistakenly for Reform party candidate Pat Buchanan. And, he said, Gore's camp intended to support legal challenges to the election in Florida. "If the will of the people is to prevail," Daley announced, "Al Gore should be awarded a victory in Florida and be our next president."

That set up the possibility of something unprecedented in modern American history - a presidential election that would ultimately be decided in the courts, rather than at the ballot box. It was a possibility that came even closer on Saturday when Bush's campaign went to court in south Florida to stop the Democrats from having ballots recounted by hand in four counties with heavily Democratic voting traditions. With the result so close, said former Republican secretary of state James Baker, who leads Bush's final fight for Florida, "we feel we have no other choice."

The legal battle was just one part of the struggle. Republicans and Democrats in effect had entered a new phase of the campaign for the presidency: a fight for legitimacy. Democrats, emboldened by Gore's lead in the nationwide popular vote, pressed their case that Bush has no right to act as though he was already president-elect. Daley attacked Bush's campaign for trying to "presumptively crown themselves the victors" by moving ahead with plans for a transition to a new presidency. In Austin, Bush did strike a presidential pose, arranging to be photographed in his office with the men and women who would be his top economic and national-security advisers if he wins the White House, and arguing that "the responsible course of action is to prepare." His camp painted the Democrats as sore losers. "Our democratic process calls for a vote on election day," said his campaign chairman, Donald Evans. "It does not call for us to continue voting until someone likes the outcome."

The stakes are enormous. If Gore does press his legal challenge this week, Republicans warned they might hit back by contesting close results in Wisconsin, Iowa and New Mexico - where Gore took a small lead over Bush of just 173 votes in counting on Saturday. That would trigger a bitterly partisan battle that could lurch forward with no clear end in sight. The eventual winner - whoever he is - would be hobbled politically, the legitimacy of his election questioned by tens of millions of Americans. If it's Bush, many Democrats will argue that he owes his election to what Daley labelled the "clear injustice" of the Florida balloting - in effect, that the White House will have been stolen. If Gore succeeds, Republicans will claim that Democrats once again manipulated public opinion and the legal system to win at any cost - an echo of their outrage over President Bill Clinton's scorched-earth tactics in fighting his impeachment two years ago.

By week's end, more and more voices were warning that this could turn very ugly very quickly. Baker cautioned that "we are right at the cusp of having this spiral out of control." And he pointed out that two Republicans who lost presidential elections by narrow margins - Nixon in 1960 and Gerald Ford to Jimmy Carter in 1976 - did not demand recounts or legal action, for the sake of national unity, and urged Gore to accept the result of the recount in Florida. "There has to be a finality and a reasonable end to this," he said.

Even some sympathetic to Gore began warning that his threats of legal action might backfire - a sign that pressure was mounting on the Vice-President to accept the result of the recount in Florida. The editorial pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post (both of which endorsed Gore) urged the Vice-President to go easy and warned that both sides are playing with fire. The Times cautioned against "a protracted legal challenge that paralyzes the succession process." Added the Post: "They are risking a political war that could spread far beyond Florida."

Some prominent Democrats also called on Gore to cool it. "There is going to have to be a very compelling case for anybody to take this into a court of law," said New Jersey Senator Robert Torricelli. "It's a downward spiral. It may begin in Florida, but it can go to other states and, ultimately, the presidency of the United States should not be decided by a judge." The clear fear was that Gore might damage his party by pressing too hard, looking desperate to win at the cost of undermining public trust in the political system.

In the meantime, the most powerful office in the world hangs in the balance. Washington often scolds other countries about irregularities in their elections, and suddenly found that the shoe was on the other foot. Already in November, the state department has cast judgment on everything from a presidential election in Kyrgyzstan ("flawed") to local elections in Zanzibar ("marred by numerous irregularities"). Now it was the turn of gloating foreigners to decry the flaws in the U.S. electoral system. Libya mocked the "Florida model" of democracy, and the Russian Duma, its tongue firmly in cheek, offered to send observers to the state to help straighten out the voting - as did Cuba's foreign minister. Washington responded with a polite "no thanks."

The Florida result was hotly contested from the start. At 7:49 p.m. on election night, NBC News called the state for Gore on the basis of so-called exit polls of voters leaving balloting places. Other networks quickly followed suit - a huge blow to Bush's chances of winning the presidency. When Pennsylvania was placed in Gore's column 10 minutes later, it looked like the Vice-President was on his way to victory. Within an hour, though, Bush summoned reporters to the governor's mansion and said he refused to concede Florida. His younger brother, Jeb, the state's governor, was watching the results with him and had determined that the margin was much closer than the networks were reporting. They had jumped the gun, Bush argued. Indeed they had: by 9 p.m., the networks all put Florida back into the too-close-to-call category. Then at 2:15 a.m., with the entire election hanging on the outcome in Florida, the networks awarded it to Bush - giving him the magic total of 271 electoral votes needed to win the White House.

In Nashville, Gore's supporters wept and the Vice-President placed his first call to Bush, conceding defeat and pledging co-operation. In Austin, the rain-soaked Texas crowd still waiting outside the legislature erupted in joy, flashing the three-fingered "W" salute that had become the Bush campaign's trademark. The margin of victory - at that point - could hardly have been narrower: Bush had just 1,784 votes more than Gore out of 5,950,069 cast statewide. Ralph Nader, the Green party candidate who had bedevilled the Gore camp in the campaign's closing weeks, had taken 97,000 in Florida - far greater than Bush's margin of victory. The Texans began an ironic chant - "NA-der! NA-der! NA-der!" - thanking him for their triumph.

But only 50 minutes later, the world had been turned upside down again. Gore, only minutes away from making his concession speech at the marble-columned war memorial in Nashville, pulled back after being told that he was fewer than 2,000 votes behind in Florida. Once again, the fickle networks took Florida out of Bush's column and his victory was in doubt. With the margin so close, an automatic recount began later that day in Florida - but even that was not decisive. It will not be completed until the end of this week, when a few thousand absentee ballots are counted. But an unofficial count by the Associated Press confirmed Bush's victory - by an almost impossibly thin majority of just 327 votes.

Ground Zero of the fight was Palm Beach County, 100 km north of Miami on Florida's so-called Gold Coast. There - in a heavily Democratic, largely Jewish area - the official results showed that Buchanan had won 3,407 votes, three times the number he won in any other Florida county. To Democrats, that made no sense - and even Buchanan agreed. "I think they probably voted for me mistakenly," he said. The problem, Gore's campaign argued, was the so-called butterfly ballot used only in Palm Beach County. It listed presidential candidates on both sides of the ballot. Voters had to punch the hole corresponding to the candidate of their choice - but confusion may have arisen because Gore was listed second on the left, but the third hole had to be punched in order to vote for him. Anyone who punched the second hole ended up voting for Buchanan.

Another 19,000 Palm Beach ballots were rejected, mostly because voters punched two holes. Some said later they mistakenly voted for Buchanan and then punched the hole for Gore, thereby voiding their ballot. At the same time, the Gore camp successfully asked that ballots in Palm Beach and three other heavily Democratic counties be counted by hand - which might result in tallying more Gore votes.

In other circumstances, all that might only have validated Winston Churchill's famous remark that democracy is the worst system - except for all the others. Confusion, spoiled ballots and second thoughts are the routine stuff of elections: as many observers noted last week, the U.S. system promises not a perfect election, just a fair one. Republicans pointed out that the "butterfly ballot" had been agreed to by both parties and samples had been sent to voters before the election; no one complained ahead of time. The question was whether the kind of glitches found in Palm Beach County were enough to call into question a national election in the country that likes to consider itself the world's greatest democracy. That, in effect, was what Democrats were arguing last week. Daley, Gore's campaign chairman, claimed that the voting in Florida was marred by voter intimidation and other irregularities, and argued that "steps should be taken to make sure that the people's choice becomes our president." (One of the nicest ironies among many last week was that Daley is the son of the late Chicago mayor Richard Daley, the Democratic party boss widely suspected of manipulating the vote in 1960 to make sure that Kennedy beat Nixon in Illinois - and thus won the presidency.)

What kind of steps could be taken? Democratic loyalists took to the streets in Palm Beach chanting "Re-vote! Re-vote!" Many were elderly retirees who said they would never knowingly have voted for Buchanan. Jesse Jackson, the Democratic activist, led African-American voters who claimed that blacks had been turned away from polling places. "This is becoming a national embarrassment," he said. "This was not a fair election." A few Republicans turned out to mock the call for a do-over, with signs reading: "Go home, crybabies."

Other Floridians were just embarrassed that their state, with a history of corrupt voting, was at the eye of the storm. "I think this makes Florida look bad," said Omar Medrano, 27, of Miami. "But you expect it here. And everyone knows elections in south Florida are corrupt." Democratic loyalist Gina Alvarez, 46, of Miami Beach, added: "Even if Bush wins, I will not accept the victory. Something has to be done about the politics in Florida. This is getting really out of hand."

Still, it is far from clear what the state's courts might do - if the dispute ends up there. Traditionally, courts are very reluctant to intervene in elections, and the more important the election, the more reluctant they are. In a 1998 case, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that a court may void an election if there is "substantial non-compliance" with election laws and a "reasonable doubt" that the results "expressed the will of the voters." A judge would have to decide whether the outcome in Palm Beach met those criteria - and the decision could then be appealed through state and federal courts. It is less clear what a judge can do to redress any wrong, such as order a new election.

All that would take time, but there is a looming deadline. On Dec. 18, the 538 members of the electoral college - party loyalists pledged to vote for one or the other candidate - are to meet in their state capitals and formally choose the next president. If Florida's electoral votes are still being disputed, it may not be possible to count them. And if Republicans go ahead with their veiled threats to retaliate by contesting results in other states, it may be impossible to hold a clear and legitimate vote in the electoral college. Eventually, under the U.S. Constitution, the decision could be kicked into Congress, where the House of Representatives would choose a new president, with the combined representatives of each state having a single vote.

Those scenarios are still far-fetched - though not unthinkable given last week's unprecedented outcome. Florida promised to complete its recount by Tuesday, Nov. 14, and count all absentee ballots by the end of the week. If Bush is still ahead in that count, pressure will mount even more on Gore to pull back from any legal challenge. And other results could change as well. Gore staked much on the fact that he won a greater share of the national vote than Bush. But ballots were still being counted in several states late last week, with as many as a million absentee ballots in California still unaccounted for. That left open the possibility that Bush might eventually have more votes nationwide.

But whatever happens on that front, the new president will come into office with a tenuous mandate at best, and will have to deal with a closely divided Congress. The American presidency, already shrunken by the evaporation of foreign threats and misbehaviour by its occupants, will likely be further diminished. Robert Dallek, a historian of the presidency at Boston University, warned last week: "This is going to produce a president who is seen by millions of people as illegitimate." Even if the two sides pull back from the brink this week, the damage may already be done.

Hillary, meet Nader the vote raider

Amid the fallout from last week's U.S. presidential nail-biter, some remarkable results were almost overlooked:

- For the first time, a First Lady won elective office. After 24 years of supporting her politician husband, Hillary Rodham Clinton became an elected official in her own right by defeating Republican Rick Lazio for a seat in the U.S. Senate from New York by a decisive margin of 56 to 44 per cent.

- A dead man, former Missouri governor Mel Carnahan, was elected to the Senate. Carnahan died in a plane crash on Oct. 17, along with his 44-year-old son and an aide, but his name remained on the ballot. He defeated Republican John Ashcroft after Missouri's Democratic governor promised to appoint his widow, Jean, to serve in his place.

- The U.S. Senate may be evenly divided. Republicans now hold 50 seats and Democrats 49 - with ballots for one seat in Washington state still being counted late last week. Republicans would maintain control only because Republican Vice-President Dick Cheney would have a tiebreaking vote, or because Democratic Vice-President Joseph Lieberman's Senate seat would go to a Republican. As for the 435-seat House of Representatives, Republicans emerged from last week's election with a majority of 220 seats, down from 223 before.

- Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader won three per cent of the national vote - short of the five per cent needed for the Greens to qualify for federal campaign funds in 2004. But Nader did tip the balance in the most crucial state, Florida. He won 97,000 votes - far more than the 1,784 by which Al Gore trailed George W. Bush there after the first count.

THE MEDIA GET IT WRONG

The lowest point in a very bad night for the American news media may have come at 3:43 a.m. on Wednesday. That was the moment when NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw confessed to his viewers that "we don't just have egg on our face - we have omelet all over our suit." Over on CBS, Dan Rather was just as frank. "If you're disgusted with us," he told his audience, "frankly, I don't blame you."

Rarely have so many been so wrong so publicly. For the U.S. networks, election night was a professional and public relations disaster. Shortly before 8 p.m. eastern time, all declared that Al Gore had carried Florida and won its crucial 25 electoral votes - only to reverse their decision less than two hours later and put the state back into the too-close-to-call category. Then a disastrous second decision: at about 2:15 a.m., they called Florida for George W. Bush and then declared him the next president of the United States. Once again, they soon had to eat their words and call it a toss-up as Bush's lead in the state shrunk to less than 2,000 votes. By the morning after, most networks were already conducting in-house inquiries to make sure they do not repeat the error.

What did go wrong? The broadcasters pointed to Voter News Service, a consortium owned by the major networks and The Associated Press wire service that conducts so-called exit polls of voters as they leave polling stations. VNS combines those data with early results and supplies the information to news organizations to help them decide when to declare that a candidate has won a state. The service promised last week to investigate why its computer models produced such flawed results. But analysts point to a less technical reason: the fierce competitive pressure among the networks not to lag in making predictions, even if the results are achingly close.

Newspapers fared little better - though they had a chance to correct their most embarrassing errors. A sample: the New York Post screamed "BUSH WINS!" in red end-of-the-world banner type. The Orlando Sentinel announced "It's Bush" in a middle-of-the-night edition, but switched to "Contested" for its final. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch bannered "Bush wins a thriller," while the more sober New York Times printed 115,000 of its 1.1 million copies with the headline "Bush appears to defeat Gore." Canada's two Toronto-based national newspapers also had to gamble. The Globe and Mail guessed wrong with the headline "Bush wins," while the National Post blundered with "Bush declared president." Ironically, the paper that has spent half a century in the shadow of a wrong call avoided such mistakes. In 1948, the Chicago Daily Tribune famously announced "DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN" - only to be mortified when the triumphant Harry Truman held up the erroneous front page as a sign of his upset victory. The paper - now simply the Chicago Tribune - played it safe with the headline "White House race too close to call." And as it turned out, the Tribune had it right this time.

UNPOPULAR GOVERNMENTS

Under Canada's electoral system, the party capturing the most seats wins. As a result, in 11 of the 36 general elections since Confederation, majority governments have been formed with less than half of the popular vote.

Election: 1872

Party: Con.

Popular Vote: 49.9%

Seats won: 51.5%

Election: 1896

Party: Lib.

Popular Vote: 45.1

Seats won: 55.4

Election: 1930

Party: Con.

Popular Vote: 49

Seats won: 55.9

Election: 1935

Party: Lib.

Popular Vote: 44.4

Seats won: 69.8

Election: 1945

Party: Lib.

Popular Vote: 41.4

Seats won: 51

Election: 1968

Party: Lib.

Popular Vote: 45.5

Seats won: 58.7

Election: 1974

Party: Lib.

Popular Vote: 43.2

Seats won: 53.4

Election: 1980

Party: Lib.

Popular Vote: 44.3

Seats won: 52.1

Election: 1988

Party: PC.

Popular Vote: 43

Seats won: 57.3

Election: 1993

Party: Lib.

Popular Vote: 41.3

Seats won: 60

Election: 1997

Party: Lib.

Popular Vote: 38.5

Seats won: 51.5

Source: Library of Parliament

A Nation Divided:

With the final ballots still trickling in, Vice-President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush remained separated by a razor-thin margin in the race for the White House.

Popular vote*:

Gore: 49,222,339 (49%)

Bush: 48,999,459 (48%)

*Numbers subject to change due to some states' recounts

Electoral College Votes:

Gore: 255

Bush: 246

Undecided: Florida, New Mexico, Oregon

Maclean's November 20, 2000