If you’re like me, there’s no way you thought the election mechanics this year would go so smoothly (going to pretend Nevada doesn’t exist.) Most states increased their absentee/vote by mail participation exponentially. The primaries held after Covid began were a clusterf*ck. And that’s a kind description. There were concerns about access to drop boxes. Controversies about when mailed ballots could be counted if they arrived before/on Election Day. Or after. Fears of armed militias harassing in-person voters. With cops doing nothing to stop them. What about Russia or China, or some other foreign power causing disruption?
The possibilities were endless. In the best of times, the American voting system is Byzantine. Each state has their own game plan. Each county within each state has their own variations within that. In many respects, Federalism is dead in America. Not with voting. And it was reasonable to expect chaos and an uncertain outcome. Especially when there are two presidential elections in the past 60 years where we still don’t really know who won.
JFK was declared the winner in 1960, and Richard Nixon publicly accepted that result. But unlike 2020, chicanery existed in a widespread fashion. For all of the evils of the internet and social media, had Chicago Mayor Richard Daley done whatever he did with dead voters and ballot box stuffing in the modern era, we’d have all kinds of proof. The saying in those days was Cook County always comes in last. Meaning that after all the Downstate Illinois counties reported, Daley would know how many votes he needed to come up with to ensure victory.
You can’t do this sort of thing now. Ballots are tracked and triple checked in ways that didn’t exist then, due to lack of technology and custom that would have avoided it if the tech was available. But this memory helped push the Trump narrative that a Democratic “comeback” in places like Pennsylvania must indicate the election was being stolen.
Instead, GOP observers at every step in the process have been unable to give Rudy Giuliani and the rest of Donald Trump’s crew a shred of evidence to go to the courts with. The reality is quite simple. Republican legislators in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania made sure that absentee/mail votes could not be counted until Election Day. These votes require more double and triple checking than in-person votes. So, unlike Florida, Arizona, Ohio, and Kansas, where the early counting of early votes gave Joe Biden his biggest advantage early, and then Trump caught and passed him, the reverse happened in the Great Lakes states that wound up deciding both the 2016 and 2020 elections.
Democrats really did do dastardly things in a presidential election that may have tipped the balance. It’s just that it happened in 1960, not this week. Beyond whatever Daley did to keep Illinois blue, Vice Presidential nominee Lyndon Johnson was up to no good in Texas, another extremely narrow result for JFK. As it was, LBJ was on the ticket because of his status as Senate Majority Leader. This was only possible because of the 1948 victory that got him to the Senate. One that he won by 87 votes, earning him the sobriquet Landslide Lyndon. Thing is, he had to cheat to do this. George Parr, the Duke of Duval (County) managed to get Johnson more votes than there were voters.
When you hear conspiracy theories about 120% of eligible voters in a given county participating in this year’s election, it’s complete nonsense. But it happened in Texas in 1948 and a future American president benefitted. Similar techniques may well have won the Texas for Kennedy twelve years later. Though Nixon didn’t call for recounts, his residual bitterness led to the dirty tricks of the 1972 campaign, Watergate, and Nixon’s eventual exile.
Then we have the mess of 2000. You may think you know who “really won,” but you don’t. George W. Bush’s legal team, led by Jim Baker, successfully got the Supreme Court to prevent Al Gore’s team from continuing recounts in a few targeted counties with heavily Democratic voters. In 2020, the call from Biden and the rest of the Democrats was “count every vote.” Twenty years ago, it was “count every vote where it will likely help us.”
The final official margin was 537. Somebody had to win, and that somebody became President of the United States because of those hundreds of votes. States don’t use punch out ballots anymore. We don’t have hanging chads, dimpled chads, or any other sort of chads. In an election decided by fewer than a thousand votes, there were hundreds of thousands of votes that required interpretation.
In 2000, Florida counted slowly and awkwardly. This year, the third most populous state in the country had a clear winner before midnight on Election Day. They counted their early and absentee votes early. Not a whiff of controversy. Just a state that is now officially more red than purple.
The biggest culprit in 2000 was none of the aforementioned factors. It was a “butterfly” ballot design in heavily Democratic Broward County. Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan wound up getting a statistically impossible amount of votes. Unless you believe the most heavily Jewish county in Florida gave the most anti-Semitic candidate his best result. The layout meant several thousand Gore votes migrated to Buchanan.
While it’s very possible Bush got the most actual votes, it’s quite likely Gore was intended to receive the most votes. Given the closeness of the race and the methods of the time, we’ll never know. But before you think the Democrats were clearly screwed here, please recall another factor that hurt Bush.
Florida has two time zones. The Panhandle part of the state is on Central Time and polls close an hour later as a result. In 2000, multiple networks called the state for Gore, based solely on exit polling, before the Panhandle was done voting. How many thousands of voters decided not to get to their precinct before it closed, or decided not to wait in line with the result already called? This is the most heavily Republican part of the state, so it’s not an idle question.
Again, things have changed. The only controversial call on Election Night was Arizona for Biden, by FOX News. The Associated Press followed them a few hours later, but as I type this, Arizona is still uncalled by most organizations. Near as I can tell, FOX was correct. Biden will barely hold on. Even if you think the call was irresponsible, not only were polls closed in Arizona at the time of announcement, but so was everywhere else. No potential votes were influenced.
However, the aftermath of the 2020 vote was influenced by Florida in 2000. If you’re wondering why the election was not called for Biden until Saturday morning, when it’s been obvious to most impartial observers that this was over no later than Wednesday morning, it’s because of what happened a generation ago. A less divided country was thrown into turmoil because of the confusion wrought by the early call. Nobody wanted that on them this year. Understandable. But it also gave Trump a lot more room for a lot more bluster.
I expected confusion at a minimum, operator error here and there, and perhaps a little scattered fraud. I’m shocked that the worst thing to happen was a busted water pipe at the arena in Atlanta where a lot of the counting for Fulton County occurred. The United States of America just ran a damn clean election with the world and all of social media watching.
The sins of the past are coming home to roost in the form of any and all theories about things that just didn’t happen this week. But a record amount of our fellow citizens voted during a pandemic in every manner of legal ways, and the elderly man the majority of Americans intended to win, did in fact defeat the other elderly man. We may not know if JFK or Bush 43 really won, but we can be sure Biden did. Well done USA!