The final question at a talk on civil discourse by James A. Baker at the Wilson Center on Monday, October 23, 2012 raised the specter of another razor-thin election reminiscent of 2000. A subsequent headline in the Washington Post suggested that the 2012 presidential election is so close that the Electoral College could split evenly between Obama and Romney. Later, the revised headline which more accurately describes the story was that the popular vote and the Electoral College vote could be at odds but this time with Obama winning the Electoral College and Romney the popular vote.
Baker, of course, was a controversial figure in the 2000 presidential elections. He was the lawyer who led the Republican legal challenge to the Democratic call for a recount of the vote in several Florida counties. The recount - had the Supreme Court allowed it to proceed - might well have resulted in a changed Electoral College result that not only would have reflected the popular vote but also changed the political and economic complexion of this country and its role in and perception of it in the world.
In short, without Bush 43rd’s ill-fated decision to invade Iraq in and of itself, a costly and difficult war would have been avoided and the US would have remained a largely benevolent power in the minds of most foreigners.
In retrospect, the Democratic Party’s mistakes that fateful night were two: 1) to call for only a selective county recount, and, 2) in my estimation, appoint Warren Christopher to lead its legal challenge. I never thought Christopher was a strong Secretary of State whereas Baker was and I thought even at the time that the Democrats would have done far better to appoint a far more aggressive lawyer to lead their legal challenge in 2000.
Back to 2000
I spent elections night 2000 on the 93rd floor of World Trade Center Tower Two – a place that sadly no longer exists – as New Mexico State Manager for Voter News Service, a national vote reporting and predictions organization that sadly also no longer exists. At the time, New Mexico was both a swing and a Bell Weather State. I also happened to work in the same room as the Florida State Manager.
This year New Mexico is solid blue so how our voters vote doesn’t really matter to the campaigns this year except for a fight over a Senate seat which - if the US Chamber of Commerce has its way - would turn from blue to red. But even with all the Chamber money thrown in, the polls continue to show Democratic Congressman Martin Heinrich well ahead - thus far, at least. Occasionally common sense does trump money even in the craziness of American politics.
In 2000, New Mexico was so closely divided in the presidential polls that every one of our votes mattered. It took about a month for all the New Mexico votes to be counted before the state was narrowly declared Blue. Our major culprit was the then incompetent Republican Bernalillo County Clerk (the state’s largest county) famous for declaring that she never finished the count. This time she ultimately had to – despite a lost ballot box locked in some out of the way closet, a wayward box that mysteriously turned up about a month later when, of course, it no longer mattered.
Due to their blatant incompetency both she and her elections manager were gone by elections 2002 and we’ve elected Democratic County Clerks ever since. By the time the missing ballots were found, however, I had been back in New Mexico for about a month and the real fight over the nation’s future had remained centered on Florida.
I don’t blame Baker for the outcome – he did his job all too well - but I do blame Florida’s then Secretary of State. One of the many problems with US elections is that they are run by politically partisan state and county officials who themselves have a stake in the outcome. Nevertheless, most of all I blame the US Supreme Court, then as now controlled by judges appointed by Republican presidents, which never, repeat, never should have even agreed to hear the case.
Unfortunately, the highest Court is still controlled – 5 to 4 – by the Republicans but let’s hope that if the elections balance on a knife’s edge yet again, that the justices exhibit better judgment this time around and stay out. I’m skeptical, however, that the once burned, twice shy rule will play out. The high court five already caused enough havoc earlier this year by upholding “Citizens United” (a 5-4 decision) which has resulted in the flooding of the campaigns with SUPERPAC money largely favoring the Republicans. More than 80% of these funds it turns out, come from fewer than 200 of America’s richest – according, at least, to a study cited in the October 13 Economist.
As the Economist also pointed out in another article in the magazine’s same special section that this approach to politics is just a step away from “The Gilded Age,” a time near the end of the nineteenth century when corporate America blatantly bought politicians outright before a depression brought on by their profligacy ushered in a populist reaction that swung the pendulum in the opposite direction. This depression hit my ancestors so hard that my grandmother was denied her chance to study at Radcliffe College or ever get beyond a high school education because the family could no longer afford it. The depression of the 1930s – following the “Roaring Twenties” - another Republican “gilded age” - denied my mother-in-law of a college education she too desperately wanted and deserved for the same reason.
Back on the 93rd floor, however, VNS called Florida for Al Gore because, in fact, that’s what the VNS predictions formula indicated. Exit polling, which was part of the formula, in and of itself is notoriously accurate (far more than pre-elections polls). The VNS call came late in the evening: and, to repeat, the figures being reported from Florida substantiated it. The VNS formula which factored in a number of indicators including select precinct reporting too may not have been perfect – but, in reality it was likely better than what we have now since VNS was destroyed by the major US news media that had funded it for 20 or more years and gave AP sole control of the process thereafter (which decided it didn’t need precinct reporting or a separate check on its own county reporters).
Here’s today’s problem: The quagmire in Florida could repeat itself – the Republicans have been working hard to make it so - through that party’s perennial insistence upon denying poorer voters the franchise - at least those more likely to vote for the Democrats despite the fact that study after study has shown that electoral fraud perpetrated by ineligible voters is almost nonexistent.