Friday, May 22, 2009

Still grumbling about the 2000 election

It's been eight years, and still, the 2000 election bothers me. It displayed most of the things wrong with our electoral system here in the US, and several measures of gross injustice to boot.

First, it shows the problems with the electoral college: That voters matter more or less, nationally, depending on which state they live in; a small margin of voters in a single state can decide the entire election. Also, that with certain states "in play," and a winner-takes-all rule, there's a much larger payoff for fraud. The incentive to cheat in states that poll closely is entirely too high for comfort.

Second, it showcases one of the major problems with a simple plurality vote. Even retaining the anachronistic Electoral College, which makes large states disproportionately important to win, had the election in Florida - or New Hampshire - been carried out using nearly any of the other voting systems, whether Borda count, approval ballot, or instant runoff, Gore would've been accorded a decisive, if narrow, victory.

Third, the close investigation into Florida demonstrated the impact of poor ballot design and voter suppression, both of which, in this particular case, favored Bush over Gore, and either of which accounted for more votes than the final official margin. The final study showed that had the state of Florida counted all its votes correctly and consistently with the law, Gore won by a razor-thin margin in spite of both factors. If you don't remember reading about that in the news, it was buried deeply in the back, since the study wasn't completed until shortly after 9/11, when Bush was enjoying record popularity. It was also very heavily spun in the news media, which emphasized instead the fact that Gore's initial few-counties recount strategy was a bad one.

Fourth, it showed politics at its worst, with each politician acting tactically and hypocritically. Bush swore up and down that this was an issue for the state of Florida to decide - right up until the Florida Supreme Court decided against him, at which point he went running to the US Supreme Court. Gore tried to get a recount in only the most heavily Democratic counties. The election officials in Florida, working underneath Jeb Bush, embarked in a foot-dragging display of either ridiculous incompetence or partisan mockery of the democratic process.

Fifth, I think Bush v. Gore will go down in history as one of those cases where the court decided badly for the sake of expedience. Telling a state they can go ahead, certify their election results, and seat one slate of electors while the actual full count of votes is unknown, halting the recount in its tracks?

It's a remarkably clear case of an election where everything that could go wrong with our presidential election system did go wrong - and where, frustratingly, if any single one of those problems hadn't been present, the world would be a different place today. Call it a perfect storm of systematic structural problems, hypocritical behavior, fraud, error, and (last but not least) incompetence.

And that bothers me.

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