What Now?

Alan Brinkley is Allan Nevins Professor of History at Columbia University and the author most recently of Liberalism and Its Discontents (click here to buy it). Michael McConnell is the Presidential Professor of Law at the University of Utah. Slate asked them to keep a running commentary on the presidential endgame.  

Historians are usually better at looking backward than at looking forward, so perhaps the best way for me to start this “Dialogue” is to say a little bit about how we ended up in this situation in the first place.

Katherine Harris said at one point that a natural occurrence, a hurricane for example, might be grounds for extending the deadline for submitting vote counts, but that this situation does not fall into that category. In fact, an election this close is, in many ways, like a hurricane—unforeseen, unplanned for, and invariably disruptive. We have never before had a presidential election hinge on so tiny a fraction (indeed, in other worlds, a statistically insignificant fraction) of the electorate. So it should not be surprising that both sides are maneuvering desperately to push the result in their direction. If you look at any recent congressional or even local race in which the results have been this close, you’ll see the same frantic maneuvering (Holt-Zimmer in New Jersey, for example, where they are still counting a paltry 300,000 votes; or the state Senate race on the East Side here in New York, where an even smaller group of votes is still being counted and recounted). In Florida, this ordinary scenario is just writ large—both because of the enormity of the electorate and the enormity of the stakes. All sorts of ordinary Election Day screw-ups that would not have made any difference in a normal race suddenly become of epochal importance: poorly designed ballots, inaccurate voting machines, questionable decisions about written instructions by voters on their ballots. In all these cases, except perhaps the flawed Palm Beach ballot, the disputes involve a difference of at most a few hundred votes, which in any normal election involving 6 million voters would be meaningless. But here, no vote is meaningless.

We should not forget, however, the two colossal if presumably innocent blunders that have made this inevitable battle much more damaging to both sides. One of these blunders was the premature call by the networks Wednesday morning declaring George W. Bush the presidential winner—a mistake that will go down in history as one of most egregious in the history of the media. A network call has no standing in law, of course, but to the public, the network call has come to seem the official announcement of the result of an election. (Gore made it the basis of his later-retracted concession.) Once the election was called for Bush, the damage could not be undone. If Bush now loses, there will be millions of Republicans (and perhaps many others) who will always believe that a legitimate victory was somehow unfairly snatched away from him.

The second blunder was the Palm Beach ballot. No one should be too hard on the hapless official who designed it. She certainly meant no harm and could never have imagined the consequences of her mistake. But the fact remains that the confusing ballot almost certainly deprived Al Gore of what would have been a comfortable margin of victory in Florida and thus, perhaps, the presidency. And so if Gore loses, there will now be millions of Democrats who will always believe that he had victory unfairly snatched from him.

It seems inevitable, therefore, that the results of this election, whatever they may be, will be considered illegitimate by a substantial proportion of the public. That would have been the case to some degree anyway had either candidate won more cleanly while coming in second in the popular vote. But the disputes in Florida have made the problem much worse. Most people in the media dismiss these concerns and note that voters have short memories and will get over it quickly. But we have not had serious questions about the legitimacy of a presidential election in well over a century. And in the two cases in the 19th century when we did (1824 and 1876), those questions survived for years and poisoned both the presidencies themselves (those of John Quincy Adams and Rutherford B. Hayes) and the character of political life. The legitimacy of elections is one of the cornerstones of any people’s faith in democratic governance. We only have to look at what happened in the past year to Alberto Fujimori in Peru and Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia to understand the consequences of perceived unfairness in voting.

There is, so far at least, no indication that the problems in Florida are the result of fraud, for which we can be thankful; but the way this dispute is resolved could seem to many people to be fraudulent. And if that is the case, then the ugliness of the political world over the last several years that has embittered so many Americans will continue for some years more.

Is there a happy way out of this mess? I’d be glad to hear suggestions.