If only we had known what would happen in the final two months of the year 2000—and for the eight years thereafter—maybe we could have done something to change it.
And I don’t mean convincing voters in Florida not to vote for Green Party candidate Ralph Nader.
Here in 2016, as the presidential race tightens and polls continue to show that something like a third of all likely voters are considering voting for a third-party candidate in the November election, the noise in the newsrooms and the talk shows and the social media feeds is getting louder and more desperate: “This is no time for a protest vote!” “Don’t be stupid!” “This is your future, selfish Millennials!” “Please don’t bring us ‘The Nader Effect’ all over again!”
Because Nader, so conventional wisdom goes, siphoned off enough votes from Al Gore in Florida to throw the 2000 election to George W. Bush.
And boom! Horrific terrorist attacks. Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Civil liberties under siege. More wealth redistributed upward. And at the end of it all, the Great Recession.
Not the best years of our lives, I’ll agree.
And now we have the specter of possibly electing someone so ill-prepared and, well, batshit crazy that even George W. Bush doesn’t think he’s fit to be president.
But let’s go back for a moment to “The Nader Effect.”
There are two reasons I think we should not fret so much over protest votes, and especially, why we should not stoop to calling voters who opt for third-party candidates “stupid” or “selfish” or “childish.”
The second reason is the most important, in my opinion, but I’ll do Nader/Gore/2000 first.
Reason No. 2 to tone down the outrage over “protest votes” (and to stop referencing the so-called “Nader Effect”):
Blaming Nader and/or his supporters for the 2000 election result is misguided on many levels. For one thing, Gore—who should have won the election with room to spare—ran a campaign as drab as his earth-toned suits, and failed even to carry his home state. For another thing, third-party candidates are a fact of life in most elections, and their vote support does not transfer automatically to the major-party candidate who seems ideologically closest (e.g., the voter who prefers the Green candidate, given a ballot without his or her first choice on it, shifting to the Democrat—and one study did show that 40 percent of Nader voters in Florida otherwise would have backed Bush). And some voters come to the polls precisely because their candidate inspires them in ways major-party candidates seldom do: by being honest and consistent, by listening and speaking to the concerns of truly ordinary people, and by not being in the grip of large corporate interests (see Nader, Ralph; and Sanders, Bernie).
Finally, Florida was stolen, not lost, and you can’t blame Nader or his voters for that.
It would be easier to make this point if all of the post-election analyses of what we would have learned from a full recount were in agreement, but alas, they are not. As Temple University mathemetics professor John Allen Paulos said at the time—and later regretted, as his words were cited in legal maneuverings that led to the recount being stopped by the U.S. Supreme Court— “The margin of error in this election is far greater than the margin of victory, no matter who wins.” In other words, it was so damn close that slight differences in recount methodology yielded opposite results.
But if you factor in both the voter suppression that occurred before the election and a couple of significant ballot irregularities that could not be included in official recounts—yet obviously cost Gore significant votes on election day—it becomes clearer that Florida election officials did just enough dirty work to throw the election to Bush, who won in the official tally by a mere 537 votes.
In 1999 and 2000, two Florida secretaries of state paid a private firm to come up with a “scrub list” of supposed felons to be removed from the voter rolls. Using extraordinarily lax criteria, the company returned some 57,700 names, which were then distributed to county election boards for removal; the scrub lists, which disproportionately targeted blacks, had numerous errors, and many people did not find out they had been removed from the rolls until they tried to vote on election day. By one estimate, the number of legitimate Gore voters disenfranchised by this maneuver could have been as large as nine times Bush’s margin of victory.
In Palm Beach County, faulty (or should I say, deliberately confusing?) ballot design caused thousands of voters, thinking they were voting for Gore, to vote for conservative third-party candidate Pat Buchanan instead. Elsewhere, “overvotes”—ballots thrown out because voters made more than one mark on them—also cost Gore. If election officials had counted overmarked ballots where the voter’s intent was clear (say, two marks next to one candidate, or a cross-out for one with an emphatic circle around the other), Gore could have picked up 2,182 additional votes to Bush’s 1,309—again, more than Bush’s official margin of victory.
Put all these factors together, and Gore was the clear winner in Florida in 2000, and therefore, the real winner of the presidency. We can’t turn back time, but we can stop blaming Nader, and more important, we can stop blaming his supporters for exercising their democratic right to vote their principles.
Which brings me to my other point …
Reason No. 1 to tone down the outrage over “protest votes”:
I applaud what Bernie Sanders has accomplished this year. He has capped a long and consistently progressive political career with the closest challenge a nonmainstream candidate has made for the Democratic nomination in my lifetime. Call him a socialist, call him a populist, whatever you call him, he has inspired millions of Americans with his no-nonsense prescriptions for a more just and democratic economy. Many of his ardent supporters are young people who see our current political system (and its two major-party standard bearers) as corrupt, but Sanders’ message also has appealed to voters across demographics.
And by effectively running a third-party campaign within the Democratic Party (the only way he could have been as successful as he was), and giving Clinton a scare no one had expected, Sanders showed that a new progressive politics may be within reach, and that voters who expressed their deepest convictions at the polls really did make a difference.
And for voters who feel that they are always being told to shut up and do what the party establishment tells them, voting for Sanders and having it really count toward a movement might have been a liberating experience. We should no more try to take away that kind of experience than tell voters whom they must vote for under any circumstances.
Every individual owns his or her own vote, and is free to cast it as they choose. That is democracy, pure and simple.
Of course candidates and pundits (and Facebook friends) will try to sway the holdouts. Convincing arguments are always welcome. Whatever reservations you have about Clinton, there are real and scary differences between her and Donald Trump. And when all is said and done, most Sanders supporters will vote for Clinton, not Jill Stein or Gary Johnson.
And one of the best arguments for Democrats is, of course, that Clinton can finally create a liberal Supreme Court, where many decisions are made that really do affect our lives. For example, Black Lives Matter supporters should be aware—I’m sure that many are—that Supreme Court decisions dating back to the seventies are what allow police to defend unjustified killings with the flimsiest of excuses that they feared for their lives.
But convincing voters to help Hillary win and keep Donald Trump out of the White House should be done with persuasive arguments, not insults.
In a Sept. 22 New York Times op-ed, addressing mainly black Millennials not comfortable with voting for either Clinton or Trump, Charles M. Blow wrote, “Protest voting or not voting at all isn’t principled. It’s dumb, childish, and self-immolating. I know you’re young, but grow up!”
I respectfully disagree. Such insults are akin to telling people they are too stupid to make their own choices in the voting booth. Forget what you really think, and listen to the establishment.
On Election Day, people should feel free to express their convictions with the one ballot they own. You don’t have to shame them for it. There is still time to earn it.
Copyright 2016 Stephen Leon