Electile Dysfuntion 2000: Heard Anything from Florida Lately?

Leno nailed it. “Florida just can’t keep up its election.” He nailed it the very first night, and the good old Floridians have been proving him right ever since.

The story is abundantly clear to anyone who’s looked at a newspaper, listened to a radio, or turned on a television at any point in the last few weeks. Still, incredible as it may seem, there are those who don’t know the facts. They talk about it, and they act like they know, but they don’t really know the facts. So here it is, all laid out in one neat little package. All you have to do is take five minutes to read it.

Step one, election day. Florida was a hotbed of confusion. The networks announced that Gore won the state. Turns out they spouted off prematurely. It was close, and they were guessing, and in the end they guessed wrong. Then they said Bush had won, and still they really shouldn’t have. Still they didn’t know for sure.

Why, then, would they go ahead and say it? The networks get their information from an organization that exists solely for the purpose of guessing the results of elections. They conduct a thing called an exit poll, the first of Election 2000’s vocabulary terms. They send people to the polling sites and ask voters who they picked. When they’ve asked a certain number of people, they postulate the rest. And they’re almost never wrong. Almost.

So that’s why the nation didn’t know who won. But the Floridians didn’t know who won, either. Some didn’t even know who they voted for. How is that possible? Vocabulary term number two: the butterfly ballot.

The ballot in Florida was divided in half, with Bush then Gore in the first row, Buchanan then Nader in the second, and a series of holes down the middle. The candidates’ names were in boxes, arrows pointed to the appropriate holes, but many still couldn’t decipher the code. Gore was the second name on the list, they thought his was the second hole. But Buchanan was second, Gore was third. Guess they should have looked before they punched.

Other election night glitches made things even worse. More than 19,000 ballots were thrown out, eliminated, because people voted for more than one candidate. One man, one vote seems to be a fundamental part of the process. Apparently not in Florida. Ballots from one polling station disappeared for hours. And unconfirmed reports allege a sheriff in the Panhandle set up a road block to turn away African-American voters. Yikes.

So after all that, they counted the votes, and Bush had won, but not by enough. He won by less than one half of one percent, something like 1700 votes, and the system doesn’t trust itself to be accurate within that range. So they fed the ballots through a machine, and it came out even closer.

With less than a thousand votes separating him from the job of a lifetime, Gore demanded they be counted by hand, one by one, so no vote was missed. Bush didn’t like that idea, since the machine had said he won. He claims the handling taints the ballots, knocks out chads that were never punched. So they took the campaign into the courthouse, where nobody really knows what to do.

Let’s take a minute here to describe the chad, since it’s a vocab term that has many confused. The chad is a small rectangle that gets punched out of the ballot to mark your vote. It’s attached by its four corners, and therein lies yet another problem. A hanging chad is one where three corners detached, but one still holds it to the ballot. A swinging chad has two corners attached, so the chad kind of hangs there like a door. And the pregnant chad, which can’t help but make you giggle, is one that’s simply dented in the middle. These are apparently produced by voters too weak to push a peg through a hole.

Bush and his lawyers have a bag full of chads they got off the floor of a counting station. Chads are dropping as we speak, and nobody knows which ones to count. But Gore gets closer as the count goes on, so he wants to keep it going. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court just ruled the recount doesn’t count, it came in passed the deadline. What Gore will try next remains to be seen, but right now Bush has the state.

Which brings us to the electoral college. Something people know frighteningly little about, considering it’s how we elect our president. I’ll try my best to keep it short and relatively simple.

The electoral college is made up of 538 electors, divided among the states based on the number of Congressmen representing the state plus the two Senators each state gets. The number of Congressmen is based on population, so bigger states get more electors.

When you go to the voting booth and make your choice, you aren’t choosing who will be president. You’re choosing who will get to appoint the electors for that state. Electors are actual people, obviously loyal to the candidate who picks them. The electors go to the state capitol and quite literally vote for their candidate. It isn’t just assumed, because they could change their mind.

In 24 states it’s not illegal for an elector to vote for the other guy, regardless of the people’s voice. Of these 24 states, 18 were won by Bush. Assuming Florida, Oregon, and New Mexico all stay with the candidate who’s won them as of today, Gore currently controls 267 electors. Bush controls 271. If Gore could get just two electors to change their minds, it would be locked at 269. And all hell would break loose.

The decision would then be put in the hands of Congress, where many believe there would be another tie. In this case, the tie would be broken by the president of the House of Representatives. Unfortunately, that would be Vice President Al Gore. Nobody’s sure how they would handle that.

So that’s it, the whole story. Or at least enough of it to have a conversation without looking like an idiot. Hopefully one or two people are less confused now, there’s been way too much grey hair laying around. Just remember, like Gore said when he called Bush to take back his concession, “There’s no reason to get snippety about it.”

– Dan Fogg