Over the weekend, the long awaited 2020 election decision was made, most of the ballots were counted, and Joe Biden was declared the 46th President of the United States. However, the declaration will not go uncontested. President Trump has promised litigation up the wazoo in order to combat the decision based on allegations that… well it doesn’t really matter what he is alleging, he is just alleging, and anyone following the three months leading up to the election, starting with the war on the postal service, and pivoting into fear mongering about the mail-in ballots he is now claiming were lopsided against him, saw it coming.
In preparation for the long drawn out election process of 2020, which appears to be shorter than I anticipated, I did two things, I started reading Too Close To Call by Jeffrey Toobin, an appropriately named title after the inane repeating of the phrase on every news station, and I watched Recount. Both dive into the controversy and litigation in the wake of the 2000 presidential election between Bush and Gore. I figured that to prepare for what was going to feel like a never before seen moment, I should reflect on the last time we saw it. And in doing so, what we are currently going through feels much tamer. Not that a president who refuses to concede when it is obvious he lost is not unprecedented, but an election decided by a mere 527 votes and concluding unsatisfactorily in the US Supreme Court when a man who probably did not win was declared President, at the very least, feels more chaotic.
There are also similarities in the elections, events that echoed through the intervening 20 years, plays called because they worked the first time, decisions made because of the successes and failures of what happened in 2000. Here are the main points I learned.
We are impatient
I know the circumstances were different, but all things considered, we were super impatient this year. We bemoaned how long it took for a winner to be declared, we made gifs making fun of Nevada and how slow they counted, and it definitely felt like a really long time. Election day feels like it was a month ago. But as I listened to Toobin’s book, I was blown away as each day in 2000 ticked by with more events and developments. I intellectually understood that the 2000 election wasn’t decided until December, but as the days of this year’s election dragged by with deliberate slowness, I couldn’t fathom the restlessness of the 2000 election (I was too young at the time to fully appreciate it) as they awaited a decision.
Cubans throw a wrench in everything
It was interesting to hear of the unique role Cubans played in the 2000 election and Miami-Dade County as they also threw pundits for a loop this year. The complexity of their values and voting are refreshing in some ways, unable to fit into some pollster’s demographic (I heard a pundit say “Latinos are not a monolith”), they feel above party politics if not a bit reactive to triggers that candidates can use to their advantage (Elian Gonzalez and the cry of socialism for example). They have a strong voice and they use it well and they played a major role in both these elections.
Brooks Brothers Riot
As Trump supporters mobbed Pennsylvania counting facilities and counters covered the windows with pizza boxes, I thought about how crazy and unhinged it all seemed. Not so fast… this wasn’t unique, in fact, it feels a little bit like a play call.
In the 2000 election, Republicans tried to win the presidential battle in the streets (through the political exploits of the nefarious Roger Stone no less) by bussing in masses of volunteers, equipping them with signs and slogans, and then putting them in places that would have maximum impact on decision-makers and ballot-counters. The protesting was not only desired by the campaigns, they were orchestrated by them. One particular version of this happened in Miami-Dade County and was dubbed the Brooks Brothers Riot. It is now being compared to what happened last week, and it trended on Twitter for a while, twenty years later.
Claims of Stealing an Election
This is the thing, right? This is the comparison. In 2000 Bush was declared and Democrats claimed they stole the election and in 2020 Democrats won and Republicans claimed they stole the election. But we need to push back against making politics a game of tit-for-tat. Not all words and actions are equal, and we are living in an era where our political actions are akin to an arms race, and we claim it’s a tennis volley. One side will tell a lie, and the other side will tell a much more harmful lie and justify its fairness on the basis of the previous, smaller lie. It is hard not to believe that the hurt feelings and bad blood of 2000 came roiling back up in this modern era of pseudo-equal and opposite.
But the comparison doesn’t work, at least not as nicely as politicians might like it to, especially as the White House seeks a ‘James Baker-like’ figure to lead their litigation against the Democratic victory, hoping they can redo what they did in 2000. The only problem is that in 2000 we had a race so astronomically close that we had entered into the realm of human error factoring into election results. The Democrats were not claiming election rigging, they were claiming election errors that could make up a miniscule percentage of millions of votes being counted. And even so, they failed to adequately convince the nation that the human error in voting was obvious enough to actually follow through on a full recount (which, in hindsight, it was).
Now we sit in a race that was nowhere near as close. Republicans would need to argue a swing of thousands of votes in multiple states in order to change the outcome. This is nowhere near the realm of human error. And asking for a James Baker-like figure, and using the same playbook they used in 2000 (which almost definitely suppressed legal American votes) is a dangerous example of the type of tit-for-tat we have allowed in politics and has created an escalation of harmful rhetoric and polarization.
A Lack of Consistency
Unsurprising, when comparing the 2000 election to the 2020 election, there is a definite lack of consistency in the attitudes and behaviors of the parties. I am most definitely not providing a hot take here… But those inconsistencies are, if not expected, interesting.
The first inconsistency is minor. Toobin spends time addressing the Republicans desire for more people to vote by mail. In fact, by the year 2000 they had been working for several elections to raise the number of mail-in ballots, because they valued getting people to vote. And one of their strongest attacks against the Democrats in 2000 was that in the Democrats efforts to ‘count every vote’ (another parallel for ya’) they got in the weeds about potentially illegal absentee votes cast (no date, postmark, or witness signature). A lot of these ballots were from the military, not a good look to discard military votes when you are trying to become Commander in Chief. Now we see Republican elected officials decrying the use of the very mail-in ballots they tried to normalize, while Democrats make sure every last one is counted.
The second inconsistency was one I remember from when I was a child and was brought to the forefront of my mind by my reading and watching. I remember how angry Republicans were at the delay in the election results. How ridiculous they thought it was for the Democrats to tie up the certification of the new President of the United States in litigation and re-counts. Whether or not they should have been upset about it is moot, what I am more interested in, is the lack of care in some of those same people today, when their President is not conceding a much more obvious loss and instead, is choosing to tie up the certification in litigation and recounts.
The last one is maybe a consistency if you are incredibly cynical, but I will count it as an inconsistency. In 2000 it was argued that those who tried to vote, could have voted, but technically did not because they did not follow the rules. And now they are arguing, that those who did vote, could not because… well I guess that is still to be determined. Either way, it’s a bad look and a bad argument for top Republicans who 20 years ago tried to suppress votes, and are trying to do so again today.
It is Easy to Forget People
In 2000, as every lawyer, politician, and their mothers argued how to count ballots in regards to the dimpling and positioning of chad (or is it chads?) it was hard not to understand, that regardless of the liberality of the standards of judging those chads, American people’s votes would not be counted. And the more that people argued for more stringent regulations of judging each chad, the worse it felt. ‘Chads don’t dimple themselves’ right? Someone hit it with a stylus. Did they do it correctly? Obviously not. Should that discredit their vote? I would be careful to answer that question with a ‘yes’.
Votes matter, people vote, and we want every person to vote. Until, apparently, it suits us to not count their vote. Al Gore was especially conscientious of trying not to fall into this inconsistent mindset, and he was never president of the United States because of it. But I am not upset about his failed election as much as how the conversation surrounding the 2000 election rose above the human beings who got into their cars, waited in absurdly long lines, cast their votes, anxiously awaited results, only to have the results not include their votes. That’s the conversation.
I see a parallel track of dismissing the human in this year’s election, not just as claims of illegality might attack legal votes made by actual humans, but in a more subtle way that has already occurred, and episode 719 of This American Life, ‘Trust Me I’m a Doctor’ made me think about it.
Before the election began, the producers of the show did an outlandish thing (I’m being sarcastic but only a little bit). In the wake of all the claims of mail-in ballots being rife with potential fraud, they asked the people who count mail-in ballots what they thought. How simple, how elegant, how unfamiliar to us to go to the people who are doing the thing we are condemning and get their take. And as these civil servants talked about their job, I was reminded that these are people who volunteered for a job on the side, without malicious intent or a desire to rig an election, and they worked really hard to count votes because it is something they truly value.
And even if this small sample size of people and opinions does not persuade someone that massive election fraud is not a possibility, it is still an important lesson in how we should think about such claims. We need to remove those claims from the abstract realm, and root them in people and places and actions.
The election was rigged? By who?
Illegal votes were cast? How?
Illegal votes were counted? Where? By who? How? When?
The answers are tricky. Maybe there are answers. But if a person claims election fraud on a massive scale in the abstract, it is time we started talking about the concrete, the human beings who were doing their jobs, who make the election happen, that are now being accused of election rigging. It makes me just about as uncomfortable as votes not being counted.
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