There are a number of unwritten rules that surface during an American Presidential Election with alarming alacrity. A small town in New Hampshire will be the first to declare its results after the 34 voters have cast their ballots, no Republican wins without taking Ohio’s 18 Electoral College votes, and the calamitous inevitability of something going horribly wrong in Florida. As a result of demographic changes over the last 50 years, Florida has become an important swing state. Its 29 electoral votes mean that it is always a highly competitive battleground, and one with a reputation for electoral chaos.
Perhaps the most infamous example of this chaos was the 2000 Presidential election clash between Bush and Gore. According to the state’s finals results Bush led by 537. The whole process was riddled with controversy and partisanship: the state’s Secretary of State, Katherine Harris, who was responsible for the electoral process, was also the Bush campaign’s state co-chair. She oversaw the ‘scrub list’ process that removed felons from the electoral lists, however, often people with the same names were also removed. This disproportionately affected African-Americans, who were more likely to be Democrat voters.
Badly-designed ballot cards also caused problems in Palm Beach County. Voters had to punch a hole next to the candidate that they supported, but the layout of the ballot paper meant the second candidate on the ballot paper (Gore) was the third hole. Democrats argued that this confused voters who accidentally voted for Buchanan of the Reform Party. 5,330 were spoiled and not counted because voters voted for both Gore and Buchanan. The Gore campaign claimed that this was because voters tried to correct their mistake.
The Gore campaign requested that disputed ballots be counted by hand and the Bush campaign countersued. The case advanced through the courts to the US Supreme Court. While the Justices considered their decision, the whole presidential election hung in the balance. On 12th December, the Supreme Court handed down its decision on Bush v Gore: the recount would cease and Bush would be declared the winner in both Florida and the country. This was a constitutionally horrendous situation because, as Professor Sheldon Goldman of the University of Massachusetts says, “the judiciary was essentially determining who the President would be”. The Court was split 5-4, on partisan lines with the conservative element in the majority; the decision made was based on who the Justices wanted to win, creating a mockery of the elections. The Court further judged that a partial recount contravened the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution, resulting in Bush’s succession into the White House.
This year, Florida was beset by long lines and absentee ballot problems. The delayed result was a victory for Obama. When I went along to a voter centre in Massachusetts on Election Day, I remarked to one of the volunteers on the lack of line and how smoothly voting was going. She replied, “This isn’t Florida, we’ve been doing this much longer.”