November 23, 2023

US Elections: How Bush vs Al Gore changed voting in America

Bush vs Al Gore election brought to light once again the problems with the system of the electoral college, which has been debated since it was first made a part of the US constitution in the 18th century.

The presidential election in America this year is being projected to be the most divisive in the country’s history. But that has not stopped people from drawing parallels with another electoral contest which also ended up as a really tough fight. In 2000, Republican George W. Bush won against Democrat Albert Arnold Gore by a margin as narrow as a few hundred votes, but not before a month of drama with unprecedented twists and turns as the counting night failed to prop up a clear winner.

The 2000 election was remarkable in many ways. As political scientists Andrew E. Busch and James W. Caesar fittingly described the developments: “The problems that began on November 7 seemed to most Americans to be at first the stuff of history books, drawn from a more primitive, political era.”

This was the first time since 1888 and only the fourth in all of American history that a president had won despite losing the popular vote. Further, Bush’s victory was certified by a Supreme Court that awarded all 25 electoral votes of Florida to the Republican candidate. Most importantly though, the election for the first time exposed the flaws in voting technology. Significant questions were raised over what should be done to achieve greater reliability or uniformity in results, not just within the states, but also across the nation.

“Is reform to consist chiefly of improving voting machinery and revising individual state electoral laws, or will it involve major changes in national electoral laws and perhaps a constitutional amendment to alter the entire electoral college system?” ask Busch and Caesar in their book, ‘The perfect tie: The true story of the 2000 presidential election.’ Indeed, the election of 2000 did bring forth a few legislative changes in America. Consequently, it also impacted the ways in which states reformulated their electoral laws, allowing or restricting many from access to the polls.

What happened in the 2000 presidential election?

On October 25, 2000, about a fortnight before election day, the New York Times published an opinion poll that suggested Al Gore leading by two percentage points over Bush in Florida. A day after the election, however, the publication’s front-page story showed how unclear the state’s results were on counting day. “Florida is pivotal,” said the headline as it reported, “at one point, surveys of voters leaving their polling places projected that Mr. Bush was one percentage point ahead in the popular vote, at another point, they have him one point behind. At still another point, all major networks called Florida a crucial battleground, for Mr. Gore. But in a rare reversal, they declared two hours later that the state was too close to call.”

By the early hours of November 8, less than 600 votes separated the two candidates and the margin was still narrowing. As per Florida state law, a recount of the votes was necessary since the margin was less than 0.5 per cent, and in this case it was somewhere around 0.01 per cent. Both teams sent their lawyers to Florida as allegations of conflict of interest were made from both ends. By November 10, the machine recount showed Bush leading by 327 votes, out of six million. However, the court challenges pointed to the legality of hand-counted votes in certain counties and the difficulty in determining voter intent in case of ‘hanging chads’ or incompletely punched paper ballots, ‘pregnant chads’ or paper ballots that were dimpled but not pierced, over votes (ballots showing multiple votes for the same office) and under votes (ballots recording no votes an office).

Not only did the voting technology in Florida differ from the rest of the country, but it also varied from one county to the other. At Palm Beach county, for instance, there was the issue of the butterfly ballot design which prompted voters to inadvertently cast their vote to a third-party candidate.

In the course of the next month, some 50 individual suits were filed with regard to counts and recounts. On December 9, the Supreme Court ordered the manual counting to be stopped and decided to hear out both sides. On December 11, as both Bush and Al Gore presented their cases, the former alleged that the Florida Supreme Court had outdone its authority by allowing the recount of undervotes, while the latter asserted that federal law must not intervene in a case to be decided by the state.

The following day, the Supreme Court overturned the decision of the Florida Supreme Court to recount the votes suggesting that it violated the equal protection clause of the US constitution. The court ruled that the Florida Supreme Court had created a new election law, a right reserved for the state legislatures. Moreover, there could be no process of recounting that met the federal deadline of the state electors. Consequently, the court awarded all 25 electoral votes in the state to Bush, thereby clearing the path for his election as president.

The ruling was heavily criticised by dissenting justices, the most notable of them being Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who felt that the recount process should have been allowed to proceed instead of subjecting them to a timeline.

What was the impact of the 2000 election?

The immediate impact of the election was the realisation among American citizens, regardless of their political leanings, that the electoral system was outdated and much in need of repair. Consequently, repair came in the form of the Help America Vote Act or HAVA, passed by both houses of Congress in 2002.

The Act required states and municipalities to upgrade their election procedures including voting machines, the registration and overall administration of the voting procedure. However, it left the specific implementation of the process on each of the states. At the same time, it also called for the creation of the Election Assistance Commission, a national level agency, charged with the responsibility of ensuring that HAVA requirements are being met.

However, left to themselves to work out the details, some states worked out laws that made it harder for large populations to vote, while others have easier access to the polls. A 2015 report published by Time magazine shows that since 2010, 21 state legislatures have enacted laws to curtail ballot access, while 23 others plus the District of Columbia have passed laws to expand it. “In most cases, blue states (Democrat leaning) have pushed to expand voting rights, while many of the new restrictions have come in red states (Republican leaning),” says the article by Alex Altman and Maya Rhodan. For instance, in California, a predominantly blue state, a voter is automatically registered the moment he or she acquires or renews a driving license. The red state of North Dakota, however, narrowed the forms of identification that a voter can present to get access to polls.

Interestingly, the efforts to restrict voting rights disproportionately affected demographics like the Blacks, Latinos and the poor. Although, officials say that the motive behind restrictions is to eliminate voter fraud.

Consequently, the most significant impact of the changes brought about has been in terms of the low voter turnout in the national elections. A survey conducted by the Pew Research centre in 2016 noted that voter turnout among Americans is less than 60 percent, which is one of the lowest among the developed countries.

Lastly, the Bush vs Al Gore election brought to light once again the problems with the system of the electoral college, which has been debated since it was first made a part of the US constitution in the 18th century. After 2000, and more so following the results of the 2016 elections, academics and journalists have been raising questions over the efficacy of the system that does not allow a candidate who has won the popular vote to become the president of America.


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