CWorld Editorial: the 2000 US Presidential Election

This Editorial was written just under 20 years before the 2020 Presidential election  as part of the then ‘Chameleonworld’ website:

Chameleon’s Editorial Number 4
December 2000

It’s official: The USA is no longer a democratic country.

New York. December 13th. 2000. So it’s official. The USA is no longer a democratic country. In the recent Presidential election the candidate polling the most votes country wide – by a recorded margin of 337,576 (though the true margin is undoubtedly larger) – is forced to concede the election after a State governed by his opponent’s brother has inaccurately recorded voting patterns in favour of that brother. 267 million citizens in the world’s most sophisticated country have just had their leader chosen by the margin of a single unelected judge. The victor received less than 24.48% of the possible vote.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, the evidence in Florida suggesting electoral ineptitude and fraud is awesome: police road blocks deterring black voters near election stations as part of an alleged campaign of intimidation against racial minority voters; ballot papers of frightening complexity recorded by automatic counting machines of dubious performance which have remained uncleaned for years and which are known to be prone to inaccuracy; unadvertised early closing of polling stations, individuals incorrectly missing from or recorded as dead on electoral registers; others sent to incorrect polling areas.

Then there is the law: a Florida court judgement that there was no reasonable probability that an accurate hand count of votes would change the election outcome, in which the judge did not actually bother to examine the ballot papers which constituted the only hard evidence; a Supreme Court judgement to actually stop an accurate count of the votes. And so it goes on. The great empire which for a century and more has bullied the small and the weak in a humiliating game of global politics, applying the slogan of democracy as a sledgehammer with which to extend its world wide aegis, has been revealed in all its manipulating and inefficient glory. We now know just how empty that slogan really is.

If this was Serbia or Nicaragua or just about any country which is poor or weak there would be an army of independent observers denouncing the result as a manipulated sham and an insult to democracy. And the US would be aggressively to the fore in calling for a revote or sanctions. Instead the fraud has been accepted and endorsed. Tin pot banana republic politics – for so many decades self righteously satirised by the US in movie after movie – have finally come home to roost. Never mind Belgrade or Managua, Tallahassee will do just fine and dandy thank you.

In the background lurk the candidates and their obese, swollen teams of would be kingmakers and advisers. But the career people who have made the details of this upside down world possible are not the politicians but their servants, the lawyers. This is the nightmare scenario writ large. Federal cases, State law, Florida Supreme Court rulings, Washington Supreme Court re-rulings, Circuit judge rulings, suing, counter suing, recused judges: it reads like a glossary of legal practice, as if the profession wanted to see just how many careers could be made and how many mortgages paid for by an ever increasing series of glass bead game like arguments over the simple matter of electoral fraud. One can only imagine the noughts on the final legal accounts. Celebrating its longest economic boom period since the death of the dinosaurs, the US has finally found something to spend its money on. Bigtime.

Television, the ultimate US arbiter of taste, has taken all the side issues and is running with them like nobody’s business. The networks are filled to the gills with legal comment on obscure statutes and rulings, and the personalities of even minor county court judges and attorneys are the subject of absurd and superficial national scrutiny. In a country which calibrates meaning with degrees of celebrity status, the talk shows – the preferred locus of ‘considered’ comment and reflection in these parts – abound with newly manufactured experts, whilst parents, concerned as to how their delicate offspring will cope with the ‘contradictions’ of the current situation, are paraded on TV as national exemplars.

Wonderful. Thousands can starve to death in underdeveloped countries on a regular basis without so much as a word of nervous explanation from parental middle America, but at the merest hint that the US can’t get its electoral act together people worry that their children will suddenly turn all psychotic on them. As Larry King gathers legal commentators together like wintering packs of vultures at some bizarre and mock serious public symposium the tone in the country has become increasingly hysterical.

And the country, of course, is obsessed with it. A recent Sunday edition of the New York Times issued a special 15 page “Contesting the vote” section. But more significant was the way in which the story seeped like some secondary cancer into every corner of this famously humungous organ. Style, comment, media, arts, psychology, local news, … section after section examined every angle from Kathleen Harris’s amateur false eyelash technique to the psychology of loss. Everything was dissected and discussed with only the one taboo exception. For the only issue in this story to escape serious attention was the only serious issue in this story: the sustained abuse of due democratic process.

This abuse has been mostly bypassed as an item of any significant importance. So it is worth repeating that what the US courts have just done is to deliberately block an accurate record of the election votes cast. The richest nation in the world has just violated democratic principles at the most basic level, but because the media have succeeded in presenting the issue as a sort of Disney story line game between opposing bands of lawyers the establishment is able to proceed with this charade.

Foreign observers may be tempted to ask what all the fuss is about. Everybody knows that this country is run by the big corporations, and with the House of Representatives Republican and the casting vote in The Senate now Republican, a Democrat President would be about as efficacious as the Queen of England trying to control a British parliament composed solely of Arthur Scargill clones. Look at what happened to Clinton’s welfare reforms in the House during his hardly remembered first term.

Alright, let’s be sympathetic for a moment: you can see the double blind the courts were in. As some friends explained to me in a Manhattan restaurant last week, states like New York and New Jersey can afford up to the minute push button technology to ensure that votes are easily cast and accurately counted. But Florida is mediaeval in comparison. In a normal election where the margin of victory is substantially greater than the likely percentage error of the vote counting mechanism, the deserving candidate wins anyway. But when the election is as close as this one the margins of error become critical.

And that means the establishment is worried. Ordering a recount would have been tantamount to admitting to a crisis. But that could be bad for the markets, which everyone knows have been riding far too high for far too long. Congress was terrified that it might be called on to arbitrate. The result has been an utterly endemic apprehension in Washington about trying to ascertain an accurate vote count. Democratic theory and principles have been tossed – almost unnoticed – down the pan.

Liberals – both here and in Europe – are more worried about the practical consequences. They don’t believe the Gore Vidal mantra that the Republicans and Democrats are anyway just different wings of the same party: their line is that on every issue, all the way down the line, ‘Dubya‘ and the new House are going to stand for mindless conservatism, ever increasing protection of the large corporate interest, lack of respect for the environment and yet more unthinking dumb US isolationism.

Maybe. But just as important – and far less contentious – is the silent swipe in the face of democracy that we have just witnessed. What we are seeing is how modern Western political institutions have become too powerful for the people. God bless the new autocracy that rules America. God help the rest of us.

December 2000 Chameleonworld.