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.
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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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from the archives:
An Unreasonable Man – Ralph Nader (2006) (10 minute clip from the film)