Tag Archives: Al Gore

When democracy was set back more than a century

Many Democrats would probably agree that George W. Bush’s capture of the presidency, 20 years ago, was a big injury for democracy.

It was, but the biggest injury was inflicted by default, by Al Gore and other leading Democrats, well before Florida’s “hanging chads” and the Supreme Court entered the picture.

At the start of 2000 it was not at all destiny that “the Electoral College decides, not the voters” would become a 21st century rule. What we think of as “how the Electoral College works” is an extra-constitutional custom which emerged after its intended operation jammed hopelessly in the 1796 election. As of 2000, this mechanism was in practice little more than a footnote, as the winner of the most votes had always become president for more than a century.

Realistically the Electoral College had never overturned a majority vote of the people prior to 2000, because in previous splits with “the popular vote” there was no real popular vote. In the 1888 election, the vote was still denied to women, to most nonwhites, and to all adults under 21. More than a century later, there was no precedent for the Electoral College to overturn a free and fair election with universal adult suffrage. Nor was it inevitable that such would be the case. Republicans fully intended to delegitimize the Electoral College if it disfavored them, as many believed it might that year:

NY Daily News: So what if Gore wins such crucial battleground states as Florida, Michigan and Pennsylvania and thus captures the magic 270 electoral votes while Bush wins the overall nationwide popular vote?

“The one thing we don’t do is roll over,” says a Bush aide. “We fight.”

How? The core of the Bush strategy assumed a popular uprising, stoked by the Bushies themselves, of course. In league with the campaign – which prepared talking points about the Electoral College’s essential unfairness – a massive talk-radio operation would be encouraged.

“We’d have ads, too,” said a Bush aide, “and I think you can count on the media to fuel the thing big-time. Even papers that supported Gore might turn against him because the will of the people will have been thwarted.

Republicans got to enjoy the benefit of planning to raise hell, if the Electoral College turned out to disfavor them, then having their opponents defer to it as proper and fair when it turned out the other way.

This was a huge, hugely costly mistake.

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