2000 changed everything

Posted: Feb 21, 2005 12:00 AM

 Sometimes a decision made in the heat of partisan battle has reverberations for years to come.

 One such decision was the one of Al Gore's campaign to selectively challenge the results of the 2000 election in Florida by demanding hand counts of votes cast in three counties -- Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach. The latter two produce huge majorities for Democratic candidates, and the election officials in charge of the hand counts were Democrats. In other words, Gore sought new counts only in areas where he was likely to gain votes and would not take the risk of a statewide hand count, where those gains might be offset by others for George W. Bush.

 We know now that, thanks to the news media consortium that recounted ballots in every Florida county, recounting under any method and any criterion they tested would not have overturned Bush's exceedingly thin plurality.

 But the Gore campaign, Terry McAuliffe during his four years as Democratic National Chairman and John Kerry in his 2004 presidential campaign encouraged rank-and-file Democrats to believe that the election was stolen. They decided to delegitimize an American election for partisan gain. And in the process, they did much damage to George W. Bush and the Republicans, to the reputation of the American political process and, inadvertently but to a far greater extent, to their own Democratic Party.

 The damage to Bush was obvious. A large minority of Americans has regarded him as an illegitimate president. That has weakened his ability to work across party lines and has helped to maintain the intense polarization of the electorate. It made it more difficult for him to win re-election in 2004.

 The damage to the Democrats, I would argue, has been greater. Many of them remained focused during the first Bush term on the Florida controversy, and have done less than they might have to produce attractive new policies. McAuliffe predicted that anger over the Florida result would defeat Gov. Jeb Bush in 2002. But Bush won with 56 percent of the vote. Democrats hoped that anger over Florida would produce a huge turnout in 2004. John Kerry did win 16 percent more popular votes than Al Gore. But George W. Bush won 23 percent more popular votes than he did in 2000.

 What might have hurt the Democrats even more, perhaps, is if Gore's strategy had been successful and he had been installed as president, thanks to the partial hand count sanctioned by the six-to-one Democratic-appointed Florida Supreme Court.

 We now have a test case of that in the state of Washington. There, the 2004 election for governor was exceedingly close. Something like half the ballots in Washington are cast by mail, and it takes a long time to count them. On Nov. 10, the count showed Republican Dino Rossi up by 3,492 votes. Two days later, Democrats in heavily Democratic King County, which casts about one-third of the state's votes, started turning in affidavits to qualify provisional votes -- something which hadn't been done in more Republican counties. Then, the King County auditor's office starting finding new ballots that had been misplaced -- 10,000 on Nov. 16, 1,779 on various days between Nov. 23 and Dec 18.

 A recount on Nov. 24 showed Rossi still ahead of Democrat Christine Gregoire by 42 votes. But Democrats on Dec. 3 demanded a hand count, which gave Gregoire a lead of 129 votes on Dec. 23.

 Gregoire has been inaugurated as governor. But an examination of King County records shows about 1,800 more ballots cast than names of voters who asked for them. Republicans have brought a lawsuit asking that the election result be set aside and a new election held.

 By a 53 percent to 36 percent margin, voters believed that Rossi had really won, and by a 51 percent to 43 percent margin, they favored Rossi in a revote. A Survey USA poll showed 62 percent favoring a revote.

 A selective recount, of the sort Gore sought in Florida, has made Gregoire governor, at least temporarily. But it has cast a pall of illegitimacy over her far greater than that cast over George W. Bush by the Florida result.

 Of course, no two cases are exactly alike. But now we have a better idea of what a Gore presidency secured by a selective recount would have been like. The negative reverberations from Gore's decision to seek a selective recount would have been even greater than they were. It's unfortunate that he didn't seek a statewide recount or that he didn't follow Richard Nixon's example and decline to contest a close election.