Thursday, April 7, 2011

Bush vs. Gore, Wisconsin edition

So you think that a state Supreme Court election decided by 204 votes is the strangest political thing you've ever seen?

Have you forgotten the month-long 2000 presidential election? It's too early to say, but I'm guessing Prosser vs. Kloppenburg, however it ends up, will pale in comparison to how Bush vs. Gore ended up. Bush vs. Gore turned out to be a political science lesson with which we're still grappling as a country -- beginning with a lesson that the Electoral College, not the popular vote, decides presidential elections, since there is no such thing as a nationwide election. (The personal irony was that as a freshman in college I wrote a political science term paper, advocating, yes, the abolition of the Electoral College.)

On my way home from work on election night, Nov. 7, 2000, Florida was announced as a Gore win (polls in most of the state were closed, but polls in the Panhandle, which is in Central time, were still open), only to have the networks pull their projection.

The experts knew the Bush vs. Gore race was going to be close, and that was apparent as I did live commentary on the Ripon radio station, commentary that had to end by midnight because my wife was going on ambulance call at midnight, so I had to be home in case she was paged out for a call. I stayed up as well with my son, who was ill, and I paced, child in my arms, back and forth in front of the TV while NBC decided whether Florida was going for Bush or Gore.

Recall the late Tim Russert’s whiteboard with “Florida! Florida! Florida!” written on it:

I said the same thing on radio, based on my quick calculations that Florida’s 25 electoral votes would be enough to push Bush over the 270-electoral-vote total, but then again I didn’t work for NBC.

About 1:15, CNN finally announced that Florida had gone to Bush, shortly followed by NBC:

I put Michael to bed, watched for a while longer, then went to the kitchen to clean it up. For some reason, at 2:30 I turned the TV back on, heard Tom Brokaw announce that the projected vote totals in Florida were diminishing, thought that was just too crazy to be true, and turned off the TV.

About 4:30, Jannan, Michael and I were in the emergency room across the street because Michael was having trouble breathing; the emergency room doctor concluded that Michael had … a cold. I went to work after a grand total of 90 minutes of sleep.

Of course, as we all know, election night didn’t end the election. At the time, I was appearing on the former Wisconsin Public Television “WeekEnd” show as their non-liberal non-Madisonian commentator. The biannual “WeekEnd Election Hangover Show” was held a couple of Fridays later in Madison, and one of the panelists was planning on retiring from the show after the election, but, as he pointed out, one can’t retire after an election if the election refuses to end.

In the month after the 2000 election, I would send emails every couple of days to a group of Marketplace readers (think of it as the precursor to the Marketplace of Ideas blog), passing on news from the post-election count in Florida and making predictions, all of which were (I thought) well-reasoned, and all of which were wrong. As the Dec. 5, 2000 issue came up (that issue’s Between Issues election story, the headline of which “Election winners: Kohl, Green, Petri and Bush?”, noted that Shawano voters, by an 18-vote margin, rejected a referendum to add fluoride to the city’s water supply), I had to decide what to write about an election that might or might not have ended by the time readers got that issue.

My solution: Write Marketplace's first and only multiple-choice column. The left-side column began with “If Gore wins, read this …”, the right-side column began with “If Bush wins, read this …” and the middle column began with “… and then read this.” (My conclusion: “This election will be invoked for years to demonstrate that, yes, your vote does count. But this election also will be invoked for at least the near future by those who claim, for the right (voting methods) and wrong (because they didn’t like the result) reasons, that our system is in trouble. Millions of Americans went about their lives paying attention, even deep attention, to As the Votes Turn, while remembering that their lives continue regardless of how or for whom votes are cast. That’s the best lesson of all.”)

The last incorrect prediction I made was in my kitchen Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2000 at 9 p.m., when I said, as “Law & Order” was coming on, that, 10 p.m. having arrived in Washington, D.C., it was too late for the U.S. Supreme Court to announce a decision.

One minute later, the NBC News Special Report graphics popped onto the screen, with Tom Brokaw announcing that the Supremes had finally decided, and it was, he said, “a split decision.” The only problem with that was that, as NBC’s Dan Abrams pointed out two seconds later, standing in front of the Supreme Court with veteran reporter Carl Stern, that wasn’t the case. As Abrams and Stern, reading through the decision live as millions watched, reported, the Supreme Court’s decision awarded Florida’s 25 electoral votes to Bush, finally ending our long national nightmare.

The latest word is that the recount should be completed in May. There will be a recount regardless of the final vote margin, and the canvasses, once completed in each municipality, could change not just the vote margin, but who wins. And at some point during or after the recount process, the courts (also known as the third branch of the Legislature) are likely to get involved, of course. There is a chance that Justice David Prosser's term could end with no one replacing him until the courts are finished.

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