Who Stole The 2000 Election? (Hint: Not Nader) by Eric Ruder


Image by Elvert Barnes via Flickr

Dandelion Salad

by Eric Ruder
June 2, 2016

The myth that Ralph Nader “spoiled” the 2000 election and put George W. Bush in the White House is being resurrected. Eric Ruder remembers how it really happened.

WITH POLLS showing a much closer race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump than was originally expected, Clinton supporters are resorting to frantic warnings that Bernie Sanders could cause a replay of the 2000 elections–when, according to the standard narrative of what went down, Ralph Nader’s Green Party campaign put Bush in the White House.

“Is Sen. Sanders going to stop attacks that hurt Democrats that we need up and down the ticket?” top Clinton strategist Joel Benenson said in a CNN interview the day of the New York primary. “Is he going to try to support the party that is in favor of protecting voting rights, women’s rights, or turn himself into someone who will do what he said he wasn’t going do and be a Ralph Nader and try to destroy the party when it comes to defeating Republicans in November?”

Of course, Benenson knows that Sanders has pledged that he won’t play the role of “spoiler” and will support Clinton’s candidacy if–or really when–he doesn’t win the nomination. Benenson was just stepping up the scare campaign to get Democrats to vote for the lesser evil now.

But setting that dishonesty aside, there’s another untruth here: It wasn’t Ralph Nader who “spoiled” the 2000 election. It was Al Gore and the Democratic Party strategists he chose to pursue the fight for votes in Florida, where Bush held only the slimmest margin of victory at the end of Election Day.

By failing to wage a campaign to count all the votes in Florida and call attention to widespread voter disenfranchisement before the election, Gore allowed Bush to “win” the state by a margin of 537 votes out of 6 million cast–or a miniscule .01 percent of the vote.

Al Gore won the national popular vote by more than 500,000–but the result in the Electoral College, which actually determines the winner, came down to the outcome in Florida. Bush stole the election in Florida–and thereby stole the White House.

The certification of that result took an intervention by the U.S. Supreme Court to halt the ongoing recount in Florida that was netting additional votes for Gore with each passing day.

The door was opened to this ruling by the conservative nature of Gore’s recount strategy, which focused on calling for recounts in three heavily Democratic counties rather than a statewide recount of all votes. This provided an opening to Supreme Court justices to halt the recount–on the basis that it failed to provide “equal protection” to voters in the other counties.

Those three counties used punch-card ballots, and the recounts introduced the nation to the minutiae of chads–pregnant, hanging and dimpled ones–as election officials pored over the “undervotes” and tried to figure out what the horribly outdated voting card system said about the voters’ intentions.

Then there was Palm Beach County’s notorious butterfly ballots, which were so confusing that they produced the perverse result of thousands of predominantly elderly Jewish voters casting ballots for Hitler enthusiast Pat Buchanan.

Even Buchanan–whose 3,407 votes in Palm Beach were around 2,600 more than he received in any other county–acknowledged that many of those votes had been cast for him by mistake. Why isn’t Pat Buchanan remembered for “spoiling” the 2000 election?

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BUT THE problem ran deeper than antiquated voting machines and butterfly ballots. The fix was in months before a single vote had been cast, and the fixers were some of the state’s top election officials.

Consider Secretary of State Katherine Harris, who as Florida’s Secretary of State was responsible for ensuring free and fair elections in the state–yet she was one of eight Bush campaign co-chairs right up until Election Day.

In the months leading up to Election 2000, her office hired a firm called Database Technologies (DBT) to scrub Florida’s voter rolls of convicted felons, who by Florida law lose the right to vote for life. But the criteria used by DBT to exclude voters were so sloppy–resulting in huge disenfranchisement–that it’s hard not to conclude it was done to purposefully reduce the number of Black voters.

After the stories of thousands of Black voters who showed up to vote and were denied began to filter out after the election, journalist Greg Palast investigated how the purge was carried out:

[DBT] scrubbed Florida voters whose names were similar to out-of-state felons. An Illinois felon named John Michaels could knock off Florida voter John, Johnny, Jonathan or Jon R. Michaels, or even J.R. Michaelson. Although DBT didn’t get names, birthdays or social security numbers right, they were very careful to match for race. A Black felon named Mr. Green would only knock off a Black Mr. Green, but not a single white Mr. Green. That’s how DBT earned its $2.3 million.

According to an exhaustive account of the postelection fight in Florida published by Vanity Fair in 2004, the consequences of DBT’s voter purge was much more than enough to swing the outcome in Florida:

The NAACP sued Florida after the election for violating the Voting Rights Act (VRA). As a result of the settlement, the company that the Florida legislature entrusted with the purge–the Boca Raton–based Database Technologies (DBT)–ran the names on its 2000 purge list using stricter criteria. The exercise turned up 12,000 voters who shouldn’t have been labeled felons. That was 22 times Bush’s 537-vote margin of victory.

No one could ever determine precisely how many voters who were incorrectly labeled felons were turned away from the polls. But the U.S. Civil Rights Commission launched a major investigation into the 2000 election fiasco, and its acting general counsel, Edward Hailes, did the math the best that he could. If 12,000 voters were wrongly purged from the rolls, and 44 percent of them were African-American, and 90 percent of African-Americans voted for Gore, that meant 4,752 Black Gore voters–almost nine times Bush’s margin of victory–could have been prevented from voting. It’s not a stretch to conclude that the purge cost Gore the election. “We did think it was outcome-determinative,” Hailes said.

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A FEW days after Election Day 2000, as it became clear that the battle over the outcome wouldn’t be ending soon, I traveled to Florida to report for Socialist Worker on the postelection scrum to determine who would win the state–and by extension the White House.

The Gore team was pursuing recounts in three handpicked counties, but the question on everyone’s mind was why the Democrats wouldn’t take up the widespread–and politically more explosive–evidence of the suppression of Black voters.

In addition to purge of African Americans from the rolls, there were many other dirty tricks to limit Black voter turnout. As I reported at the time:

In several counties, state police set up roadblocks near polling stations to check driver’s licenses and look for expired tags–in clear violation of their own procedures. But Florida Highway Patrol spokesperson Ken Howes dismissed all criticism. “They’re just out there doing their job,” Howes said. “Yes, departmental policy was violated, but the violations were really only administrative oversights.”

As it became clear how many Blacks had been stopped from voting, about 500 students from historically Black Florida A&M University organized a sit-in at the state Capitol in Tallahassee. “We should be concerned about every man and woman’s freedom to cast a vote without intimidation or confusion,” said R. Jai Howard, vice president of the student government. “We seek accountability from our state officials and request that they conduct an investigation into the discrepancies across the state.”

In retrospect, it’s clear that Gore was most concerned about upholding the legitimacy of the political system rather than the will of the voters–even if that meant losing the White House.

This was forever seared into people’s consciousness in Michael Moore’s film Fahrenheit 9/11, which lingered on the surreal scene of then-Vice President Al Gore presiding over a joint session of the Senate and House to certify the Electoral College results over the objections of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Despite impassioned calls for counting every vote in Florida, the dissenting representatives were repeatedly ruled out of order because they couldn’t find a single senator from the Democratic Party to sign on to their dissent and trigger a debate about the election result.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

IN THIS context, it’s remarkable that the enduring takeaway of the fight for Florida is that Ralph Nader–not Florida’s laws barring felons from voting, not the Republicans’ racist purge of Black voters, not Palm Beach’s butterfly ballots, not any of the other third party candidates who won more votes than Bush’s margin of victory–cost Gore the election.

Nobody seems to remember that Gore won the popular vote. It was only in the Electoral College–designed in the 18th century to ensure outsized influence for slaveholding Southern states–and the U.S. Supreme Court where Bush got more votes than Gore.

But it’s easy to see how the narrative about Nader the spoiler serves the interests of Democrats. First, it exonerates Gore himself, who ran a lackluster campaign that failed to win even his home state of Tennessee. His campaign failure put Bush within thieving distance of winning the White House–and Gore’s conservative legal strategy abandoned any real opportunity to stop the robbery.

Even more fundamentally, the very charge of “spoiler” assumes that the Democratic Party is somehow entitled to the votes of anyone to the left of center–and that giving voters the opportunity to cast a ballot for someone they want to is a recipe for “spoiling” the election.

The two-party system itself is what’s spoiled. Al Gore’s willingness to sacrifice the voting rights of Florida Blacks, the Democrats’ retreat from demanding that all the votes be counted, the sleazy attempts to vilify Ralph Nader for the “crime” of giving people a left-wing alternative when the Democrats had only themselves to blame–these are all examples of how the two-party system is far removed from anything that can be called democracy.

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See also:

Dispelling the Myth of Election 2000: Did Nader Cost Gore the Election?

From the archives:

Greg Palast: How The 2016 Election WILL Be Stolen!

The Scandal of Voter Suppression by William John Cox + 16 States Face New Voting Restrictions

Abby Martin and Ralph Nader: The Rigged Corporate Two-Party Dictatorship

Do Away With Elections? by Arthur D. Robbins

Chris Hedges and Ralph Nader: The Death of Electoral Politics

The Nader Challenge and What It Means Today by Todd Chretien

Ralph Nader: Dispelling the Myth of the 2000 Election

Hacking Democracy (2006)

Fahrenheit 9/11

An Unreasonable Man – Ralph Nader (2006)

21 thoughts on “Who Stole The 2000 Election? (Hint: Not Nader) by Eric Ruder

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  13. “it’s 2016 and i’m quite tired of hearing that lie being repeated by supposedly informed and intelligent and honest folks…the Dems blaming Nader for their losses is like a street walking hooker blaming their v.d. on Mother Theresa, so to speak (ha ha)…it’s well know that Gore ran a crappy campaign…he couldn’t even win in his home state!…there were 6 third party candidates in FL all of whom got more votes than the # of votes that Gore “lost” by… and i say “lost” because why not blame the supreme court or the other 5 independent candidates… which makes no sense because anyone can run for president if they’re of age and a naturally born citizen and there is no blame for the votes they get… but the Dems quite successfully made a scapegoat out of Nader… quite undeserved and dishonest! typical Dem behavior… they cop out and lie… face it, since 1980, they went along with practically *everything* the Reaganites wanted… very sad…and i’m a third generation card-carrying democrat!

    and if you actually read Nader’s book on the election, “Crashing the Party,” you’ll see that Gore dropped the ball not once but three times:

    a. he gives a rousing acceptance speech at the Dem National Convention where he states: “i will be my own man—i will take on big banks, big business and big pharma…”… sad to say, by the next morning, before the convention hall was even cleaned, Lieberman was on the phone to the wall street journal and was quoted in a published story there saying “don’t worry; he didn’t mean it!”… so why blame Nader?

    b. everyone knows he did not fight hard enough for the supreme court case… he even admitted it! So why blame Nader?

    c. in Michael Moore’s film, “Fahrenheit 9/11,” you see the congressional black caucus demanding justice in the debacle in FL and it is Gore himself (!) that shouts them down on a “point of order” (!!)… that is like saying that if you are mugged in a hospital quiet zone, you cannot scream for help…so why blame Nader?

    i’m sorry about what happened but get your facts straight and don’t blame Ralph Nader, who is responsible for almost 300 laws to protect our rights, our money, our health and our environment…

    (can you even name THREE?!?!) he saved 100’s of 1,000’s of lives with his auto safety work alone… and you think the car manufacturers wanted that? See the documentary “an unreasonable man” for the TRUTH of how that went…

    put the blame where it is due— on the Dems, who by the way, went along with the Reaganites reversing of practically all of those 300 laws… and do yourself a favor and actually read nader’s book, “crashing the party”…and stop spreading lies, please… it does no one any good…

    and by the way, in a 2002 speech, Gore quite clearly stated that he supported the war-for-a-lie in Iraq and would have gone in there himself…”

  14. “When advocates of the mainstream ideas within a main party look at non-mainstream voters, they calculate who they think that voter’s second choice would be. They may get this wrong, and often do, but they assume anyway, without actually asking, as if that second choice was theirs to decide. Like colonial conquerors, the mainstream thinkers don’t understand, and they dismiss all of the ways the non-mainstream voters would look at things. They carve up those votes and take them for their candidate, saying “These votes would have gone to Gore if there were no Ralph Nader”. That’s theft. That’s a Gore fan colonizing the votes and thoughts of Nader voters. It also, insultingly, barely hides a wish that there would be no other candidates, an ugly colonial wish for less democracy instead of more. Thinking that they have a right to count somebody’s vote for their candidate, when that voter actually voted against their candidate, is colonialism, is like invaders thinking they have a right to take somebody’s land. Invaders who neither care nor understand how the natives understood and looked at things.

    Many of the Nader voters had George W. Bush as their second choice. Some of the Nader voters had None Of The Above as their second choice, and would never have voted for either Gore OR Bush in a million years. Some of the Nader voters were just inspired by Nader or his planks, didn’t even have a second choice, and would never have voted for either Gore or Bush or at all without a sufficiently inspiring, unusually challenging, outsider candidate. Some of the Nader voters had a libertarian or a communist or some other as their second choice. Disrespecting the different understandings held by these voters is not about the math behind the spoiler effect, it is about refusing to even look at those voters as independent citizens making their own choices and assigning their own meanings.

    More Nader voters had Bush as their second choice than Gore, which thieves would already know if they looked at our votes before trying to steal them. We must tell them: “They were never yours, Gore fans. Your team simply didn’t earn them, period. Your failure, not ours. Never try to claim our votes again. Ever.

    If Gore had inspired all those Nader voters, we would have voted for Gore. If Cthulhu had inspired all those Nader voters, we would have voted for Cthulhu. Neither of them inspired us, which is why we didn’t. Gore’s fault, not ours. If all those Gore people had voted for good honest truly-peace-loving Ralph, we wouldn’t still be at war in the middle east. We would have had a lot better response to global warming. And we wouldn’t be so far behind in the war against corporate rule that blocks all other progress. But you didn’t. Don’t you dare blame us.”

  15. “My answer to this is ‘what if Gore” had been elected? Usually people who put forth this argument are standing on the very false, ahistorical partisan premise that everything was nice and wonderful until Bush came along and now everything is better again. To engage with someone on this issue, you have to agree to at least temporarily accept that delusional premise that the State’s policies change drastically with different parties in the White House. Specifically if they are asserting that there would not have been an Iraq War under Gore so you have to forget that the Clinton/Gore team brutally bombed Iraq and imposed murderous economic sanctions against the Iraqi people under an explicit declaration of regime change (which Sanders voted for) and that this was a documented part of long term plan for invasion. You have to ignore that Obama has continued the occupation in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, spread military conflict in Syria, Libya, Yemen, multiple countries in Africa, intensified conflict with Russia and China, etc…or just say that this is all the result of “Bush’s war.” Ditto for neoliberal trade treaties, expanded domestic spying, militarization of the police, growing inequality, rampant racism, prison proliferation.”

  16. The Harvard study showed that Nader had no effect on the election.

    Every big party has to blame someone . Bush won because in major Democratic counties the Dems voted for his tax cuts . Facts .

    • Thanks, Rocket. The blame goes to the Democratic Party in not running a good campaign. Gore lost his home state in TN, and like you stated, democrats in Florida voted for Bush.

      • not only that – he refused to meet wiht the Progressive wing of the party at the LA convention . He chose Lieberman . He went back on environmental promises -this is documented by Cockburn and St Clair in “Gore the Users Manual”. lost his own district not just state . Refused to allow the President to stump with him .

        He was awful in the debates . the list goes on .

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