Last month I wrote about the presidency of George Bush Jr, and the disputed election in Florida that made it possible:
Some commentators seem surprised at Republican reluctance to denounce Trump’s stumbling efforts to steal this election. But given what they got away with twenty years ago, there’s nothing odd in the fact that they might have thought it was possible a second time.
But Florida 2000 has more to answer for than the fact that it made Bush president. There have been other effects that continue to shape the American body politic.
One is the malleability of facts. For a time, there was debate about what Florida voters did or meant to do, but after the terrorist attacks of September 2001 the media apparently decided that national unity required an end to any doubts about Bush’s legitimacy. So it became taboo to even mention the fact that, as best as anyone has been able to discover, Florida actually voted for Gore.
National unity is not a bad thing, but denial of reality always exacts a price. Constant repetition of the untruth that “Bush won Florida” laid the groundwork for both politicians and the media to get away with larger untruths in ensuing years (remember “Iraq has weapons of mass destruction”), eventually setting the scene for Donald Trump and the narrative of “fake news”.
Another effect was more benign. Florida alerted the political class to the fact that obsolete and ramshackle election procedures were a serious problem. Not nearly enough was done to address it, but some things were done, and without them this last election could have played out very differently.
The Help America Vote Act of 2002, passed in response to the Florida fiasco, provided funding and assistance for states to modernise their voting machines, and set minimum standards for security and auditability. It was largely due to it that November’s election was relatively free from genuine (as distinct from confected) disputes, and that close contests, such as Georgia’s, could be manually recounted and produce clear, verifiable results.
But the final effect of 2000 did not have such happy consequences. The television networks were badly burnt by the Florida experience, where they had called the state (and therefore the election) first for Gore and then for Bush – having to retract both calls when it became clear how close it was. They resolved with one mind never to be so hasty again.
And not being hasty is a good thing. But what has happened in practice is that the media have gone to the other extreme, deferring their calls of election results to well past the point where they are in fact crystal clear to any reasonably well-informed observer.
Why does that matter? The problem is that the mass of the viewing public, who (happily for them) are not psephologists, are given the impression that elections are much closer or more doubtful than they really are. The hours – sometimes days – in which an election that has really been resolved is presented as still open are a time in which conspiracy theories and other “alternative” narratives can take hold, just as we saw in November.
This was a close election. It was entirely proper that no winner was called on the night. But by the following (Wednesday) night there was no longer any serious doubt, and the media should have informed their viewers at that point that Joe Biden had won the election. Instead, they waited another day and a half, a gap that was eagerly filled by Trump and his preposterous stories of voter fraud.
And they were still at it last week, with the two Senate runoff elections in Georgia. Both were clear on the night, but the media called the by-election only very late that night and the regular election not until the following afternoon. Yes, they were both close, but not very close; Democrat Jon Ossoff won the regular election by more than 50,000 votes (compared to Biden’s margin in the same state of about 12,000).
I don’t know whether a prompt call of the Georgia results would have taken some of the wind out of the sails of the rioters in Washington the following day. It’s possible it would have just made them more angry. But the practice of making very late calls certainly contributes to a general sense that election results are a locus of doubt and confusion, when the reality is actually quite different.
It needs to be said loudly and often – because it’s true, and the truth matters – that Biden, while he certainly didn’t win in a landslide, won a clear and utterly indisputable victory. Those who refuse to accept that are not simply voicing an alternative point of view, they are objectively wrong. But in its different ways Florida 2000 has made that more difficult to see.