The Legacy of Election 2000

By Epstein, Richard A. | Reason, March 2001 | Go to article overview

The Legacy of Election 2000


Epstein, Richard A., Reason


George Bush won. But at what cost to the law? Two legal analysts offer differing assessments.

Constitutional litigation will return to normal, but the political battles are just getting started.

What is the moral of the Great Florida Recount? Bush supporters, whether devoted or tepid (I fall in the latter category), may be personally relieved that the outcome lined up with their votes. But partisan politics aside, we can learn larger lessons from this classic judicial brawl. One lesson is that tragedies and near tragedies develop one small step at a time. Each side is rightly and mightily distressed with the prior machinations of the other. Each is therefore emboldened to take the next small step. Each step prompts the next until we come to the brink of a constitutional crisis.

That's just what happened starting November 7, 2000. Most pundits thought Al Gore's prompt request for a hand recount in friendly precincts would prolong the election by perhaps another week. They were the same type of folks who in August 1914 thought that British troops would return home from France by Christmas. What the election optimists missed is that both sides of this close conflict deeply believed that they had right on their side.

That is the second lesson of Florida's long count. The prolonged grudge match between George W. Bush and AL Gore offers ample confirmation of the endurance of primal instincts in human affairs. In our over-intellectualized analysis of politics, we place too much emphasis on the word "political" and too little on the word "animal" in the phrase "political animal." Alas, nature's first maxim of survival is to avoid a fair fight when both sides run the risk of serious injury. Nature therefore codes all animals to hold their ground when right, and to slink away when wrong. That game plan works pretty well except when each side to a dispute thinks in moral terms and believes it is right. Then a battle royal ensues.

The mutual sense of being wronged intensified the conflict, as did the fact that each side needed to make only the kinds of arguments most congruent with its legal philosophy. Democrats take an expansive view of language and harbor a yen for social justice, while Republicans gravitate toward plain-meaning interpretations and the rigorous application of formal rules. Truth is, this contest would have been over sooner if the litigating position of each side had required it to embrace the legal philosophy congenial to the other. But instead, the striking correlation of their legal strategies to their deepest psychological predispositions goaded both sides to fight harder.

The initial Gore response was an irritated expression of disbelief at the large but confused "butterfly ballot" vote for Pat Buchanan in Palm Beach County. But since Democratic operatives had prepared this ballot (to make the print easier for seniors to read), the Gore people could not lash out at Republican misdeeds, nor rectify the error in court. They did, however, think that the Republicans owed them one on the recount, and thus were emboldened to pressure canvassing board officials in Broward and Miami-Dade counties to run a hand recount that paid ever-greater homage to dimpled chads.

Republicans reciprocated in kind because they had no remorse for having won Florida fair and square, notwithstanding Democratic blunders. They showed their true colors when Florida's Secretary of State Katherine Harris eagerly exercised her discretion to deny the contested counties a waiver of the one-week deadline established for recounts. After all, the initial review of the ballots in Broward and Palm Beach counties resulted in only about 2 percent of the "undervote" being converted into votes. Thereafter, the consistently more lax standards in Broward County converted dimpled chads into 567 net Gore votes. Palm Beach County followed a more erratic but conservative course, which in the end produced, depending on who is believed, between 176 and 215 net Gore votes.

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