Review of the Year: Foreign - US Election: Craziest Election in America's History

By Cornwell, Rupert | The Independent (London, England), December 29, 2000 | Go to article overview
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Review of the Year: Foreign - US Election: Craziest Election in America's History

Cornwell, Rupert, The Independent (London, England)

Who back in January could have dared even dream it: the craziest election in American history, that on occasion had the world's self- appointed guardian of democracy appearing in as much undemocratic confusion as many of the countries it so regularly criticised; a nine-month marathon between first primary and the presidential vote followed by five weeks of unscripted, unprecedented sudden death overtime in the courts?

In the end the US was adjudged to have elected George W Bush, scion of a political dynasty which eclipses even the Kennedys. The two George Bushes, George Herbert Walker and "Dubya", will be the first father-son succession in the White House since John Adams and John Quincy Adams in the early 19th century. His grandfather was a Senator, his brother is Governor of Florida - by delicious twist of circumstance the very state where the messy epilogue of Election 2000 took place.

For just the fourth time in the 224- year history of the republic, a president took office having lost the popular vote - and only did so thanks to intervention by the Supreme Court, which may taint the reputation of the nation's highest court for years. Among the many interpretations of this bizarre late autumn, one of the most plausible is also the most ominous: that George W's victory seals the take-over of the executive branch of government by the judicial branch - in plain language, that lawyers and judges now run the country.

Once, back in the 1950s and 1960s, the process had noble enough motives, as the courts delivered civil rights progress that the politicians could not. But gradually relations between judiciary and executive degenerated, first into special counsel warfare against sitting presidents, then into the naked manipulation of the political process that was the attempted impeachment of Bill Clinton. The path from Whitewater to impeachment trial in the Senate was a politically driven trail through courts, special prosecutors' offices and the halls of Congressional hearings, in which elementary, natural justice was frequently ignored.

Having failed to topple Bill Clinton using the legal system, the Republicans pulled off the feat against Al Gore. The climax came late on the evening of Tuesday 12 December, when the nine justices of the Supreme Court split 5-4 along ideological lines to reject the request by Mr Gore's lawyers for the manual recount they had sought and been granted by the Florida state courts.

Their pretext was that time had run out; that the manual recounts could not be completed by 12 December when states were supposed to pick their slates of electors for the electoral college, which formally chooses a president. Thus did the Supreme Court, supposedly the final and disinterested arbiter of the country's affairs, distort the most holy rite of democracy by ruling that legally cast votes could not be counted. In doing so, a conservative-dominated court which had previously sought to enforce state over federal law wherever possible, overturned a cardinal tenet of American federalism, that elections are held under state and not federal jurisdiction. In short, the world's dominant country, so proud of its constitution, saw that constitution stretched to near breaking point by an election.

Interestingly, the fault lay not with that much maligned institution, the electoral college. You didn't need to be as partisan a Democrat as Hillary Clinton, the newly minted Senator for New York, to sympathise with Al Gore and demand abolition of a device designed to square late 18th-century political circles which no longer existed.

In a study three weeks after the election the Miami Herald calculated that if Florida's ballots been counted as those who cast them intended, Mr Gore would have prevailed by 23,000 votes.

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