This entry takes a Democrat's view of the 2000 US Presidential Elections, but does not represent the opinions or views of either h2g2 or the BBC.
In most countries, citizens get suspicious when a presidential candidate has a brother who promises to deliver the state he governs, and a cousin who helps a major television network, decide how to call the election - but not in America. Of course, the 2000 Presidential Election was irregular in many other ways too; for instance, the new President of the United States may not have won the election fairly. The irresponsibility of the press, disenfranchisement of voters, use of faulty voting equipment, and electoral system of the US are the major problems that led to George W Bush's victory over Al Gore.
Irresponsibility of the Press
The United States media have a formidable job. They are responsible for being 'an additional check on the three official branches' of government, according to Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, and keep the First Amendment1 viable. The United States was founded on the idea that the government should be allowed to be criticised, and the press do the most work on this front. However, the media is also accountable for some ignoble doings, including their deficient coverage of the Presidential Election of 2000.
The irresponsibility of the press began long before election night. During the primaries, the press covered George W Bush much more favourably than John McCain, Bush's only true rival, dwelling on Bush's 'straight talk express' and 'I'm not from Washington' slogan. They also began to show Bush as an avenger of his father, who lost to the Clinton-Gore ticket eight years previously. Bill Bradley was Al Gore's main opponent in the Democratic primaries, and the press helped Gore by dwelling on Bradley's faults.
By the time Bush and Gore rose to the top of their respective parties, the media had decided to ignore Bush's 'youthful indiscretions' and to dwell on Gore's stuffy personality. In fact, networks even went so far as to almost completely disregard the candidates' responses in the debates in favour of focusing on Gore's personality, which seemed to change from debate to debate. Television anchors questioned who Al Gore really was, labelling him 'mean Gore' in the first debate, 'nice Gore' in the second, and 'pushy Gore' in the final debate. This coverage conveniently left out George Bush's 'fuzzy' answers, though comedians were not so lax.
This focus on the personalities of the candidates left little room for the news media to question them on serious issues such as social security, education, government size, and the environment. They overlooked Bush's campaign promise to reduce missiles, which was negated by his proposed budget that cut funding for missile reduction, and refrained from asking pertinent questions regarding gun control following the string of school shootings.
This style of coverage dominated Election 2000 largely because it was tailored to swing voters - those who had not yet decided who they were going to vote for. This prompted the media's use of daily tracking polls, designed to hold the public's interest by showing up-to-the-minute changes. The problem with these polls was that they essentially meant nothing. They were taken over a short period of time, involved only small sample groups, and as a result, the polls only ended up showing the daily wavers of a few people. The media worsened this problem by changing its spin on the candidates almost daily when the polls switched. After Bush's convention speech, the polls leaped in his favour, and the media responded with positive news reports. However, as soon as Gore's polls improved - after kissing his wife on national television during his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention - the networks quickly switched sides, and began to favour Gore with their positive comments.
This swinging of opinion based on ineffectual polls was prevalent through the entire election, though networks would have been better served to use longer, larger polls. These polls show that the race stayed dead even for the majority of the campaign. If networks had used longer, larger polls, they may have avoided their election night debacle by making allowances for how close the race actually was.
The culmination of these mistakes occurred on election night, Tuesday, 7 November when television networks called the election for the winner - and the loser. It was a night of many errors, during which networks called Florida for Gore around 8pm Tuesday. They then issued a retraction, calling the state 'too close to call' before naming Bush the winner of Florida's 25 electoral votes. He was called President Elect Bush multiple times before networks finally retracted that call at around 4am citing a dramatically narrowing lead for the Republican.
Since the results of the Presidential Election hinged on Florida, the media's errors appeared most evident there. The major networks called the state ten minutes before polls in some Florida precincts had closed - a mistake which angered Democrats and Republicans alike. Worse yet, the networks may have dissuaded many Floridians from voting because of their repeated reports that all of Florida's polls had closed when they had not. CBS alone stated 13 times that the polls had closed in Florida, and implied this misinformation 15 additional times - all during the last hour when the polls in the panhandle counties were open. This obviously affected voter turn-out, an offense made even more damaging because of the closeness of the election.
The Voter News Service
The major reason the election was miscalled is that NBC, ABC, FOX, CNN, and the Associated Press all use the same source for their voting data - the Voter News Service. The Voter News Service is the network exit poll consortium which has provided election data to television networks since 1993. Until 1994, the VNS had made all election calls itself, only passing the outcomes on to the networks once it had reached its own conclusion. This allowed the VNS to take its time, as there was no competition to be the first to call a race - the VNS had a monopoly on election information, and the networks all received their information simultaneously. However, in 1994 ABC set up its own decision desk staffed by experts who crunched the VNS's data themselves, beating out the other networks in the calling of three major elections. By the time the 1996 elections rolled around, every major network had its own decision desk. This triggered the fierce competition to be the first network to broadcast election results.
Competition contributed greatly to the miscalls occuring throughout Tuesday night. Since the networks all shared the same information and were all competing to be the first to call the election, bad data passed on to them by the VNS was compounded. The Voter News Service itself collected the information through a combination of exit polls and key precinct results. This formula has worked nearly flawlessly in the past. However, because of ballot problems in some Florida precincts, an extremely close race, and underestimated absentee ballots, among other things, the Voter News Service passed on inaccurate information to the networks.
Despite its mistakes, the VNS was not solely to blame, as the major networks claimed. The decision to give Florida to Gore came from bad data from the VNS; however, VNS officials never called the state for Bush. In fact, the decision to declare Bush the winner was first made by Bush's cousin, John Ellis. Ellis was the head of the call desk at Fox, the original network to call the election for Bush.
Even though the call for Bush was retracted, it gave Bush a sense of legitimacy which Gore was never able to overcome. The media has a strong hold over public opinion, and when it portrayed Gore as a sore loser, declaring that if he went farther with his battle the only result would be a 'constitutional crisis', they gave George Bush an even stronger position. He could then plead his case by saying that the American public wanted him to be president. Of course, if the media had portrayed Bush as a thief - as they could easily have done - there is little doubt that poll results would have been quite different.
Since the inauguration of George W Bush, the media has done little to clarify their role in the election. Despite the fact that new tallies show that Gore likely was the winner in Florida, they have not encouraged interest in the story. In fact, USA Today recently featured a story on the Florida recount, concluding that Al Gore was the true winner. According to Nichols, that means that an honest recount of discarded ballots would have given Gore an additional 682 votes - more than enough to reverse the 'official' results, which gave Bush a margin of 537 in Florida. Despite the shocking news that the president of the most powerful country in the world did not win the election, networks have not even casually mentioned the story and few newspapers have printed the recount information. The press has an obligation to cover stories which affect the American public, and their refusal to report on the recount results in Florida shows that most news and media organizations are still acting irresponsibly, despite their promises.
The press cannot claim full responsibility for the many blunders of the 2000 Election. The disenfranchisement of voters, most prevalent in Chicago and sections of Florida, may have cost Al Gore the election single-handedly. In fact, across the country voters were turned away from the polls due to 'incomplete' or 'invalid' registration. Many of those turned away had used their voter registration cards successfully for years, and even decades, without a problem. The majority of these voters were minorities, who are far more likely to vote for Democratics than whites. This means that the disenfranchisement of minority voters is ultimately detrimental to the Democratic party as a whole.
Even voting equipment, which is considered impartial, counted minority votes less often than non-minority votes. Butterfly ballots, used in parts of the Florida election, were confusing even to highly educated citizens who went to cast their vote using a ballot which did not resemble the one printed in area newspapers. Illiterate voters, who share the same right to vote, had a particularly difficult time using these ballots. Since higher percentages of blacks and the poor are illiterate than non-minorities and the rich, the undervote among these groups is much higher than among others. Florida precincts where fewer than 30 per cent of the voters are black had an undervote of about three percent. In precincts where more than 70 per cent of the voters are black, however, nearly 10 percent of ballots failed to register a vote for president.
This large discrepancy in accuracy may also be caused by old voting equipment. Punch-card ballots are the least accurate of all of the voting systems currently used in the United States. However, switching over to more advanced equipment costs a great deal of money. Because of this, over one third of the country uses the old, inaccurate equipment, while the more affluent communities are able to obtain more precise paraphernalia.
The Electoral College
The Electoral College of the United States was designed in the 18th Century as part of a plan to divide power between state governments and the national government. In this system, there is no legal significance to the popular vote, although generally the popular vote and the results of the electorat are the same. However, it is possible that a candidate can win the presidency without having the majority of the popular vote, as the 2000 election showed. This election also rekindled a debate over the validity of the Electoral College in present-day society. Here are some helpful links to more information about the electoral system:
The myriad mistakes in the 2000 Presidential Election show that, while we may never know for sure who won, it is imperative that more research into the matter is conducted. Nothing can be done now to change the outcome of the race, but steps need to be taken to prevent a repeat of Election 2000. Only when the press becomes more responsible in its reporting, voters are not disenfranchised, erroneous voting equipment is removed, and the Electoral College is examined can United States citizens be sure that future elections will be fair and accurate.