It seems odd to be hashing over results of an election that took place 20 weeks ago, but that’s what is happening all across America. My hometown paper reassures us that the man behind the Oval Office curtains is not a complete fraud with a page-one story announcing The Miami Herald’s verdict that Bush really did win the most votes in Florida. That means kingmakers William Rehnquist and Antonin Scalia, who commandeered the electoral process last December, at least installed the constitutionally correct candidate into power. Whew! Democracy, however awkwardly, prevails in the end.
But wait a minute! The Nation’s press columnist, Eric Alterman, has also done some reading of Florida’s papers, and the news is not so comforting. The Orlando Sentinel took a close look at 3,000 overvotes (ballots with more than one vote for president registered) in Lake County and found that more than 600 of them were actually valid ballots. If these votes, from a heavily Republican region, had been counted, Gore would have been 160 votes closer to the White House. The Sentinel’s examination represents less than 3 percent of the 110,000 overvotes recorded in the state.
The Palm Beach Post, meanwhile, scrutinized 4,513 undervotes (ballots that registered no vote for president) from that controversial corner of the state. Their findings: a pickup of 682 votes for Gore, enough to overturn the Republicans’ official 537 margin of victory.
One of many tragedies of Election 2000 is that Florida’s drawn-out drama allowed many people, including most of the media, to gloss over the fact that George W. Bush received fewer votes than Al Gore. Half a million more citizens cast their ballots for the Democratic ticket, but under the provisions of our Constitution, bequeathed to us by the same men who designated most African Americans as three-fifths of a person, Bush now sits at his dad’s old desk.
Where’s the outrage?—nationwide rallies protesting this hijacking of democracy, a mass movement to scrap the electoral college. When Serbians rose up last fall to overturn an anti-democratic political system, we cheered our lungs out. But a few weeks later, when the will of the American people was denied, most citizens accepted the news with idle resignation.
MANY LOYAL DEMOCRATS are focusing their anger not on the electoral college or the Rehnquist Court but on Ralph Nader and his Green Party supporters. This misses the point, says Jim Hightower, the astute political commentator and former Texas agriculture commissioner. "Gore was a weak candidate who had to focus on votes taken by Nader because he couldn’t take any from Bush," Hightower told me recently over a pint of pale ale. He points to an MSNBC exit poll showing that 308,000 self-identified Florida Democrats and 191,000 self-identified liberals pulled the lever for Bush. Unimpressed by Gore as a potential president, these people, far more than the 68,000 Nader voters, gave the state (and the election) to the Republicans.
Hightower went on to quip, "The missing ballots are not just a few hundred in Florida but the millions of Americans who did not vote." These people, predominantly lower- or middle-income workers and likely Democrats, saw little difference between Gore and Bush.
Hightower, who made a nominating speech for Nader at the Green Party convention last summer, is frequently mentioned as a possible Green presidential candidate in 2004, but he told me he has no intention of running. "For one thing," he said, "I am a Democrat." It’s his goal to help push the issues Nader emphasized—economic fairness, environmental protection, political reform—back into the center of American politics. And he’s urging Democrats to be the ones to do it.
The Democrats, by concentrating their energies on raising money from big business and tailoring their message to suit conservative white Southern and suburban males, have strayed far from the political principles that stir most of their supporters. For years, the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) and other party conservatives have promised that if Democrats ditched their New Deal baggage and truly embra-ced corporate globalization as the wave of the future, they could reclaim their rightful
status as America’s majority party. Well, 2000 was the year DLC got everything it wanted: a presidential candidate who spent the previous eight years generously accommodating the demands of corporate America, a vice presidential candidate from the conservative wing of the party, and a slew of wealthy businessmen running for House and Senate seats across the land. And look what happened—the party was skunked for the first time since 1952, losing both branches of Congress and the White House. Blaming Ralph Nader for their woes gives Democrats a convenient and potentially disastrous excuse to not address real problems with the party.
The rise of the Greens, who claim to be contemplating races in 80 congressional districts next year, means that Democrats can no longer take progressives’ votes for granted. "Nader and the Greens are a problem for the Democrats," writes veteran political observer William Greider in The Nation (March 12, 2001), "but might also be a useful asset—a force for stoking popular resistance to the party’s rightward drift, drawing new voters into the electoral process, test-marketing advanced issues Democrats are still afraid to touch."
For someone like me, who has never had the chance to vote for a Democratic presidential candidate more uplifting than Jimmy Carter, the emergence of the Green Party feels exciting. Finally, a chance to back someone who espouses ideas I truly care about rather than simply voting for candidates with whom I disagree less often than I disagree with their opponents.
On the other hand, the lesser-of-two-evils argument isn’t just empty rhetoric in our political system. I was certainly rooting for Al Gore to find a half-dozen hundred more votes in Florida. And because he didn’t—due in part to Nader’s votes as well as troubling voting irregularities—we now live under the hand of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. This will have clear consequences in all of our lives—with poor people and the environment taking the sharpest blows. Yet without idealists like the Greens raising progressive issues outside the Democratic Party, there seems little chance of pulling America’s political debate out of the soulless spot in which it is now stuck. We can only hope the Democrats’ triple-whammy defeat prompts a widespread reexamination of values and vision throughout the party.
THE BIGGEST TRAGEDY of this and every other election is that we are restricted in our political choices by the knowledge that voting our hearts might mean setting back the causes we believe in. Greens and other third parties can easily become spoilers who tip elections to the other side. There must be a better way to select our leaders, and there is: proportional representation. In continental Europe and many other parts of the world, political parties are apportioned power in the national government based roughly on their percent of the vote. Under such a system, Gore and Nader’s combined majority (and Greens would certainly have received more than 2.7 percent of the vote under such a system) would have led to a Democrat/Green alliance, similar to the Social Democrat/Green coalition that runs Germany. The Center for Voting and Democracy (www.fairvote.org) is pushing for a similar system here.
But until that glorious day arrives, please remember that most of what we call politics happens between elections. Social movements and citizen activism are powerful forces that frame the national political debate in ways that candidates of every party must respond to. That should be the mission of Greens, Democrats, and everyone over the next few years: advocating for the changes you want to see in American society. Talk to your neighbors. Write letters to the editor. Organize an activist group. Take a stand any way that makes sense to you. And then let’s see what happens in 2004.