Prime-Time Coup (Dec. 20, 2000)

Can you imagine if it was the other way round, and it was Bush who’d won the popular vote but lost the electoral college after a US Supreme Court dominated by Democratic appointees had voted 5-4 to stop counting votes likely to assure a Republican victory in, let us say, Illinois? I think we can safely guarantee that the Republicans would not be taking the soft path of “coming together” and reconciliation. They would be screaming about stolen elections, constitutional illegitimacy and pledging to resist the “coup” by any means necessary. By now we would have had the Republicans in both House and Senate vowing to boycott the Inauguration. Unlike the Democrats, Republicans take losing and winning seriously.

You can tell the Republicans know this is going to look bad in the history books. Why else have they floated the notion that it might be wise, in the interests of civic tranquillity, to put all Florida’s ballots under lock and key for all eternity? It seems that Christie Todd Whitman, the governor of New Jersey, first put the idea up on MSNBC, claiming that a recount of the sort promised by the Miami Herald would somehow delegitimize the Bush presidency. Then Jennifer Dunn, the right-wing Republican from Washington state, hammered the point home by announcing on the Capital Hill Gang that “Those ballots are going to be sealed right after the election.”

You’ll note that neither Whitman nor Dunn entertain any romantic notion that a recount of Florida’s ballots would propel George W. Bush into an assured and unchallengeable majority. Florida would assuredly have reflected Gore’s popular victory across the rest of the country, by a margin that has now risen to 540,435 votes. A useful article in the Philadelphia Inquirer by John Duchneskie and Stephen Seplow gives us the final official national tally with all absentee ballots counted. According to The Inquirer's review, Gore has 50,977,109 votes to 50,436,674 for Bush, thus giving a margin way wider than that enjoyed by Kennedy over Nixon, which was 119,450.

After all the sonorous sermons about “closure” and “finality” it is slowly dawning on people that this really was an amazingly corrupt election, far worse than the notorious shenanigans in Cook county wrought by JFK’s men in 1960. The phrase “Republican coup d’état” is not overly dramatic. There’s no need to labor the major episodes, from Secretary of State Harris’s summary decisions to the final intervention by Bush’s supporters on the Supreme Court, at least two of whom, Scalia and Thomas, should have recused themselves from the decision because of conflicts of interest involving members of their families working for the Bush campaign. (Newsweek now reports that when Dan Rather initially reported a Gore victory in Florida came through, Sandra Day O’Connor exclaimed that “this is terrible,” and “explained to another party-goer that Gore's reported victory in Florida meant that the election was “over,” since Gore had already carried two other swing states, Michigan and Illinois.”)

Justice John Paul Stevens’s bitter and much quoted dissent in the 5-4 decision still puts it best: “in the interests of finality however the majority [of the US Supreme Court] effectively orders the disenfranchisement of an unknown number of voters whose ballots reveal their intent, and are therefore legal votes under [Florida] state law, but were for some reason rejected by the ballot-counting machines… Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year’s presidential election the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the nation’s confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the law.”

Back in the 1980s we radicals used to write about “demonstration elections,” (title of a useful book by Frank Brodhead and Edward Herman) conducted in Central American countries such as El Salvador at the instigation of the US government and micromanaged by the CIA. After the money was appropriately spread around, the opposition’s more tenacious and principled leaders either butchered by death squads or driven underground, and the poor thoroughly intimidated, the election ritual would take place amid complacent orations about the democratic way from North American commentators.

We’ve just had a peaceful and non-lethal version of these “demonstration elections” in the state of Florida and no calls for closure will erase that national disgrace, least of all in the minds of those who were denied their democratic rights. Beyond those who made it to the polls in Florida, there were those denied even the dubious benefits of that access. It was only after Gore had conceded that mainstream media began to concentrate on this story. For example, Jim Lehrer devoted a long segment of his Hour to it two days after the Prince of Tennessee finally fell upon his sword.

Beyond the obsession about defiant punch card machines, obstacle course ballots, and pregnant or hanging chads, there are more serious issues that, in the miles of print written about the election in Florida, have received barely a mention: the systematic intimidation of poor people, blacks, hispanics, immigrants and the disabled.

Try this story detailed to CounterPunch, the newsletter edited by Jeffrey St. Clair and myself by Ron Davis, a black living in Miami-Dade County. “Our family always votes together. This year it was my turn to drive. After work, my wife Lisa and I borrowed a van from a friend and picked up my brother, my parents and my uncle and aunt. About a block away from the polling place, we were pulled over by a county sheriff. He looked in the van and asked me if I had a chauffeur’s license. I said, this is my family and we’re going to vote. He said, ’You can’t take all those people to the polling place without a license. Go home and I won’t write you a ticket.’ I was tired of arguing. We went home and all tried to vote later. But it was too late.”

Or how about this, from another black, Dave Crawford of Broward County: “I showed up at the polling place with my five-year old daughter. I was stopped at the door by an election official. He asked me my name. I told him. He said, ‘Son, we’ve got a problem. You’re not allowed to vote.’ I asked him what the hell he was talking about. He said, ‘Son, says here you’re a convict. Convicts can’t vote.’ He had this list in his hand. And I told him that I’d never even been arrested in my life. I handed him my voter ID card. He just shook his head, smiled and pointed at a list. He never showed me my name. My daughter began to cry and I left in disgust.”

On November 7, across Florida blacks and hispanics turned out to vote in record numbers. But thousands of black voters were turned away from the polls by hostile election workers who demanded voter ID cards, even though those weren’t required from white voters. Police set up roadblocks in black precincts around Tallahassee. Polls in black precincts closed early, often with dozens of voters waiting in line. Other polls were moved from their original locations without notice. Dozens of black college students who had registered this summer weren’t permitted to vote.

In Duval County, a Republican stronghold, about 25,000 votes were tossed out by the canvassing board, a large number of those of those came from black precincts. To top it off, according to numerous accounts, election workers regularly demeaned as being “dumb and retarded” those voters who asked for help. Throughout Florida, more than 170,000 votes were dismissed, a high margin of them from black precincts.

It is true that little in the way of substantive issues separated Bush from Gore. That is surely why the Florida imbroglio has been so mostly untroubling . Never has there been greater fuss over smaller stakes until we come to Justice Stevens’s bottom line. If this has been a constitutional crisis, the fates gave us the right time to have one.

The weeks since November 7 have entirely vindicated the accuracy of Nader’s assault on the corruption of the two party system. We’ve seen Republicans toss aside their supposed dedication to states’ rights, same as did Scalia as he bent his supposed principles to elect a President he hopes will make him Chief Justice. We’ve seen Democrats equally eager to assert states’ rights, while exhibiting absolutely no disquiet about the actual application of states’ rights in Florida, meaning the racist efforts described above to stop blacks and other minorities from voting at all. Not enough word from Gore on this. The Republican assembly leader in Florida who got into such trouble for jeering at Gore’s concession speech had it right. He was a lousy loser. He could have gone down to defeat with dignity, while insisting that it is a matter of principle that the poor get to the polls and voters get counted. But honesty is divisive, and Gore as always cocked his ear to the insistence of the elites that he endorse the system that stole the presidency from him.

Now what?

Of course the real president is someone who hasn’t been elected, even by fraud: federal reserve chairman Alan Greenspan. He’ll determine, just as he did with Bush Sr. back in the early 1990s, whether George W. Will preside over economic rubble for four inglorious years. Inside that framework how will “bipartisanship” work? Not much.

The Democrats want to look combative so they can consolidate control of the senate and win back the House in 2002. Tom DeLay and Dick Armey aren’t too interested either, unless it involves a coalition to hurt the poor, on medicare or social security.

As for Nader, it’s regrettable that he has not stirred himself more to underline the corruption of the system that permitted the fixing of the Florida vote. Now is the time for the agenda of the Greens to shape up for the next four years, and the Florida fakery is a wonderful kicking off point.

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