Popular Election of Presidents?
December 14, 2000
that Al Gore has finally and truly and irrevocably and even
graciously conceded defeat, lets step back and take stock. Why did
we get this horrible postelection contest for the presidency?
Having an apparent edge in the popular
vote, Gore chose to contest the razor-thin Florida race, on which the
electoral vote depended. George Bush (can we drop the W
now?) led there by a few hundred votes. Though it was a startling
departure from tradition, can we really blame Gore for contesting the
But his challenge soon led to a
dizzying series of arguments over fine details, and the case wound up in
the courts first the Florida courts, then the U.S. Supreme Court,
which eventually ruled that an equitable recount was no longer possible.
That froze the earlier result, making Bush the victor.
Is there anything wrong with taking
the election result to court? I dont see why. If there had been a
serious question of vote fraud, a court might well have had to step in and
reverse the apparent result. Other irregularities, even if unintentional,
might also warrant adjudication. In the last analysis, though, the Florida
legislature had the constitutional authority to dispose of the
states electoral votes.
So why was the U.S. Supreme Courts opinion necessary?
This looks like an internal Florida matter. Ah, but the Court has claimed
the authority to apply the Fourteenth Amendment equal
protection and all that to practically every aspect of
American law, however minute and local. This may be an abuse of the
Constitution, but its established practice, and liberals who have
applauded it in the past were in no position to complain that the Court
was usurping Floridas reserved powers. Some old liberal chickens
came home to roost in the Courts snarled but fateful rulings of the
It was Gore who started this
crapshoot, but again, who can censure him for doing so? He was merely
applying the logic of the law, if you can call it that. Bush had little choice
but to do the same.
Still, the postelection contest came
as an unpleasant surprise to most Americans, who expected the
traditional election-night concession from the seeming loser. And there
may be other surprises to come especially if we
reform the presidential process by replacing the Electoral
College with a direct popular vote.
Suppose this race had been decided by
the popular vote, not the Electoral College. Gore beat Bush by a mere
300,000 votes out of more than 100,000,000 cast. Or did he? If Bush had
chosen to contest the result, the ensuing mess would have dwarfed the
month-long ordeal-by-litigation we have just witnessed.
After all, Gores margin of
victory in the popular vote less than a third of 1 per cent
was, in proportion to the number cast, nearly as small as Bushs
margin in Florida. Certainly its conceivable that more than
300,000 of Gores nationwide vote was invalid. Human error might
have tipped the balance. So might vote fraud, a Democratic tradition in the
partys big-city strongholds. If illegal immigrants, convicted
felons, and other ineligibles were subtracted, Gore might well have lost
the national popular vote.
Bush, if he had decided to fight to the
bitter end, might have demanded a nationwide recount. The kind of
wrangling we saw in a few Florida counties might have erupted in
precincts from coast to coast especially on the coasts
themselves, in the chaotic cities where Gore got a wildly disproportionate
share of his support.
Just multiply the uproar of the last
month by 50, and you get some idea. The Florida mess was a freak that
will almost certainly never be repeated: a close contest for electoral
votes came down to a single state that was even more closely divided than
the rest of the country.
But a very close national popular vote
wouldnt be a freak: it has happened several times in American
history. It may well happen again, and again, and again. And the more
meaningless an apparent winners margin of victory, the more
bitter the recount war is bound to be.
Maybe were better off with
the system that produced the Florida morass.
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