Americans may as well resign themselves to the fact that the true winner of the Florida electoral votes in the 2000 presidential election will never be known. The massive, $1 million canvass of disputed ballots conducted by eight news organizations has revealed a voting system that was in an advanced stage of decay.
Punch-card voting is on the way out in Florida, but the issue of voting reform is being viewed by Republican administrations at the state and federal levels through partisan blinders.
Most Americans welcomed the end of the 36-day hiatus between Election Day and the decision by a split vote of the U.S. Supreme Court to, in effect, let stand an apparent plurality for George W. Bush. It can be argued that, since the events of Sept. 11, the issue was buried forever as far as John Q. Public is concerned, with President Bush enjoying voter approval of 88 per cent, for now at least.
Even so, the echoes of the Florida election will be heard for years. That state's voting apparatus was a misfire waiting to happen, and it could happen in other states in the future.
The U.S. voting system is not geared to handle elections that end in a virtual tie or produce winners by razor-thin margins. The next misfire could occur through a dispute over the popular election total or perhaps a leadership crisis caused by the malfunctioning of the archaic Electoral College system, an 18th century political artifact whose origins and reason for existence would likely baffle most voters if they were asked to explain how it works.
The various scenarios that emerged from the 10-month-long voting study all appeared to show a Bush victory by anywhere from 225 to 537 votes, but also that Democratic candidate Al Gore lost far more votes than his opponent because of faulty ballot design, resulting in votes for more than one presidential candidate. More than 113,000 people cast votes for more than one candidate, casting doubt on the scenarios showing that Mr. Bush won by a three-digit margin.
Votes for Mr. Gore and another candidate totaled 73,147, more than three times the number of overvotes on ballots where Mr. Bush was one of the candidates indicated. The defeated Democratic candidate, possibly mindful of future political battles he might wage, steered away from partisan comment over this issue, instead expressing support for the war against terrorism.
In precincts where more than 500 persons voted, the 20 with the highest percentage of ballots thrown out were all at least 80 per cent black. This suggests a voting pattern and voting count that at least raises the specter of racial discrimination, certainly one of the most disturbing aspects of that misbegotten Florida election. It suggests that voting officials and concerned citizens will have to monitor states where voting abuses are anticipated or suspected.
It is intolerable that the right of every qualified American citizen to vote must continue to be refought generation after generation.
What has been the Republican reaction to all this? “Two words: Who cares?” said Katie Baur, spokeswoman for Gov. Jeb Bush. Who cares, indeed? Every American who believes in the sanctity of the ballot should care, even if Ms. Baur is not among them. Is her view one to which Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, would have subscribed? Hardly.
Also disturbing are the undertones of cynicism targeted at elderly voters as well as racial minorities, suggesting that perhaps some Americans are just too senile or stupid to exercise the right of franchise. Far too many voters walk into the polling booths unprepared to exercise their franchise, no doubt about that.
But there also was stupidity on the part of those officials who designed the infamous butterfly ballot, and on the part of federal lawmakers who don't mind spending a billion dollars a month or more on combat in Afghanistan, but only now are coming around on measures that will reform the American voting system once and for all.
To his credit, Secretary of State Ken Blackwell has strongly supported voting reform in Ohio, where 69 out of 88 counties still use the discredited punch-card voting system. However, it is an uphill fight for him as long as the GOP-dominated General Assembly chooses to address the issue of voting system obsolescence with fiddling that would do credit to the Roman emperor Nero.