US pres’l election imbroglios, then and now
What has been happening lately in the United States after its Nov. 3 election makes me hark back to the time I was in that country during the presidential election in 2000. The candidates, Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush, had held debates, fairly sober affairs that were certainly not as contentious as the ones in 2016 and 2020 which featured the nefarious Donald Trump.
When the results of the 2000 election were announced, Gore was shown to have won a margin of 0.51 percent of the popular vote. That prompted the Bush campaign to ask the Supreme Court to stay the decision and order a recount. Fierce arguments and legal wrangling erupted over the fact that votes in Florida had allegedly not been properly tabulated. Some angry accusations centered on the fact that the disenfranchised were mainly black voters.
The demand was for a recount of 61,000 ballots that had purportedly been missed by Florida’s tabulating machines. The ensuing saga involved Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia who declared that a recount would cast “a needless and unjustified cloud” over the election’s legitimacy. But Justice John Paul Stevens dissented, saying “Counting every legally cast vote cannot constitute irreparable harm.” Oral arguments were scheduled for Dec. 11. Media analysts said limited county-based recounts would have confirmed a win for Bush, but a statewide recount would have revealed a Gore victory. It was a pivotal time in the history of American elections.
The month-long imbroglio involved a series of legal battles that led to the highly controversial 5-4 Supreme Court decision that ended the recount. Bush won 271 electoral votes, one more than a majority. On Dec. 12, an end to the Florida recount was declared.
At the time I was staying in the university town of Berkeley, California where, on some evenings I would bike a few blocks to attend a meditation class. Arriving at the class that night of Dec. 12, I found the leader exhorting the angry attendees to quell their turbulent feelings by emptying their minds and subsuming their rage. As an admirer of many American virtues and strengths, I felt that sense increase as I watched over a dozen women and men of all ages sitting cross-legged on the floor who moaned quietly and almost audibly grit their teeth.
It was painful for liberal Americans to see a man with gravitas like Gore (an environmentalist who had produced the fine documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” about the climate crisis) lose to someone from a political dynasty whom they considered to have scant qualifications to lead the most powerful nation in the world. Bush had been educated at Yale, where he gained fame mainly for being an active cheerleader for his fraternity and a member of the exclusive Skull and Bones secret society.
The issue of popular and electoral votes in American elections is a complex one for outsiders to grasp. Popular votes elect members of Congress, mayors, governors, and state legislators, but the Electoral College determines who wins the presidency. That’s how it was set up by the framers of the Constitution, which to many seem an antiquated and unfair practice in this day and age.
In 2000, Florida’s voting machines utilized punch cards. If dimpled marks on the cards did not look like holes had been properly punched, they were rendered illegal. Thus the term “hanging chads” entered the political vernacular. If the holes showed partially attached bits (chads) on ballots, doubt was cast on their validity. Comical moments arose amid the anger on both sides. Florida later changed its voting machines to avoid punch cards.
The earnest, dignified concession speech Gore gave, calling for all Americans to unite behind their new leader, can be seen on YouTube. The contrast with Trump fighting tooth and nail to invalidate this year’s election is stark.
The satirical writer Christopher Buckley wrote a book in 1995 called “The White House Mess,” a farce about Washington’s Oval Office that may well have augured what’s been happening today. In 2020, he wrote “Make Russia Great Again,” lampooning events in the Trump era when fantasy and political reality collided.
Will Trump be known as an aberration, a footnote in US history? Will a nation that’s been wracked by his fecklessness be able to regain its basic decency? Will Joe Biden be able to heal the nation’s divisions and inspire his countrymen to restore their tattered democracy? And will Kamala Harris eventually become the first female president of the United States?
Isabel Escoda has been writing for the Inquirer since the late 1980s.
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