Election Mess 2000

Chads, Roadblocks and Class Rule

Revolutionary Worker #1082, December 10, 2000, posted at http://rwor.org

There was a revealing moment in the dense legal banter at the Supreme Court hearing on December 1. The court had gathered to hear oral arguments in the case of "George W. Bush v. the Palm Beach County Canvassing Board." They were debating whether to intervene and help decide who makes the rules that choose a U.S. president.

The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, William Rehnquist, lectured one of the lawyers and suggested that the Florida Supreme Court had made a legal error by claiming there was a "right to vote" for president. Rehnquist said there is nothing in the U.S. Constitution about a right of the people to vote for president. The Constitution gives State legislatures the power to decide any procedure they choose to select the electors who pick the presidents. The implication is that even if there are votes involved in this process, the state legislatures have freedom to decide which votes to count and which votes to discard.

This argument raised by Rehnquist (and echoed by his partner-in-crime Justice Scalia) was so nakedly anti-democratic that it sent ripples of shock through the news and editorial pages. But, in fact, Rehnquist was pointing to a legal and historical fact.

The U.S. Constitution was a document written by slaveowners and rich merchants to keep power in their hands. The process of voting has been expanded over two centuries and surrounded by all kinds of myth--but the central decisions of power (and of choosing presidents) have remained (in reality, if not always on paper) in the hands of the ruling class.

This case was the first time that oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court have been recorded for broadcast--and millions of people could hear how this key institution of the system views and discusses issues of power. In this December 1 hearing, there was not even lip service to "the will of the people" or "counting every vote." Here, in the Supreme Court, the issue was which institution of the ruling class will set the rules for solving the election tie. The court revealed itself as a highly political body--considering issues of power and precedent from the point of view of bourgeois politics--the long run class interests of this system and those who run it.

At the same time, the myth of an "independent judiciary" also looked ragged after the December 1 Supreme Court hearing. Officially courts of the U.S. (and especially the Supreme Court) are supposed to be "above partisan politics"--and make their decisions based on "rule of law." But the New York Times worried in its editorial page: "Surely the nine justices must also realize that if they rule in a way that even remotely reflects partisan divisions in the courts or a partisan purpose by its majority, the court's reputation for integrity could be damaged for many years."

As we go to press, we don't yet know what role the Supreme Court will choose to play in all this. When the Court agreed to hear the case, there were hopes in the ruling class that they might help solve the immediate ruling class problem of establishing and legitimizing a new president. But by the end of the hearing, they were concerned that another major institution would be infected by the crisis.

Ongoing Lessons in Real-Life Power

The Supreme Court hearing was just one episode in a revealing fight within the political establishment over how to pick a president after an election tie. Each stage of this sometimes surreal fight tore away at the usual official myths about the "will of the people" and "rule of law"--giving a glimpse of the raw reality of ruling class power (and dictatorship) underneath.

The ruling class had pre-selected and tested two loyal presidential candidates and sent them into the elections with over $200 million each to spend on infomercials and armies of bourgeois political operatives. The process produced a stalemate--even though one of these candidates, Gore, clearly won the national popular vote. Now people all over the world know that U.S. presidents are really picked by the so-called "Electoral College"--an institution designed during slavery times to empower the wealthiest layer of white Christian men in the U.S.

Since then the fight has focused on who will win the Florida vote--or (more precisely) which grouping or institution in the ruling class will decide how those votes are counted. And each side appealed to those institutions that they expected to rule in their favor: The Gore camp used the election commission of Palm Beach county and took its case to the Florida Supreme Court (filled with Democratic appointees). The Bush camp relied on the Florida state government (headed by brother Jeb Bush and his appointees), the U.S. Supreme Court (dominated by Republican appointees) and the Republican-run Florida legislature.

So far, the advantage has gone to George W., whose CIA-trained brother is governor of the state and whose campaign co-chair Harris is the official in charge of the certification process.

Welcome to the "rule of law," American-style!

The Manufacturing of Majorities

After six million ballots were cast, the Florida election had a margin of victory in the hundreds. This meant that the winner would win by far fewer votes than the normal "margin of error"--those votes that are routinely disqualified, or suppressed, or manufactured.

Each side worked to delegitimize their rivals by questioning those parts of the voting process that the other side controlled and by ridiculing the vote counting procedures that the other side advocated. Hand counts have become an issue because the optical scanners of machine counters can't read ballots where the punches are not complete. Machine counts throughout Florida rejected thousands of ballots where the holes were punched but the tiny paper pieces (called "chads") have not been completely separated. When these chads were not counted, Bush won by a tiny margin. If the "dimpled chads" and "swinging chads" were manually counted, there was a chance of a Gore victory.

In this struggle, all kinds of details are coming out about how this election vote was manipulated--and how voting is routinely manipulated in the U.S. Since the spotlight in this case has been on Florida, where the election machinery was heavily controlled by Republicans, much of the exposure reveals their dirty tricks.

Many soldiers and officers officially give Florida as their residence, because state taxes are low. As a result, absentee military ballots can make a difference in a close race. It has now come out that thousands of soldiers (and other absentee voters) who were registered as Republicans received their absentee ballots with their voter registration numbers already filled in, while other soldiers had to hunt for the number in their files or make special efforts to get it from the Florida authorities. Government offices in Florida were turned over to a special operation that identified those Republican soldiers, found their registration numbers, and filled out that part of their absentee ballots. These procedures have been exposed, and as a result, the state courts will decide whether to throw out whole batches of absentee ballots (which could affect the outcome of the election).

Meanwhile, information has leaked out about why the Democratic officials of Miami-Dade County may have done their shocking about-face--calling off the hand counts in this crucial vote-rich county. It has now come out that the ambitious Democratic Mayor Alex Penalas of Miami-Dade County held a series of meetings and phone calls with Republican lawmakers, on November 21, the day before Penalas' allies suddenly voted to call off the manual recount of 10,000 contested ballots. It is widely suggested that a double-cross was worked out: Penalas gets a favorable district for his coming congressional race (perhaps as a new-born Republican star), while Bush gets the White House.

And if, after all this, Gore somehow succeeds in getting a recount that would give him the final victory, the Republicans have a fall-back plan to say 'fuck the vote' and have the Florida legislature pick the electors who go to the electoral college.

The Mark of White Supremacy

There were hundreds of complaints, from all over Florida, of Black voters being turned away at the polls. The number of complaints was called "unprecedented."

There were reports that Florida election officials were told to be especially "strict" in Black communities where there had been new efforts at voter registration and turnout. Many Black registered voters complained of being told they were not on the voting lists. Election clerks repeatedly turned away people without Florida IDs (including numbers of Black students), even though Florida law allows such people to cast "affidavit ballots."

In some counties, Black and Latino people were asked for photo ID, while white voters were not. In some places, election officials refused to allow translators to help Haitian Creole-speaking voters--even while Spanish translators were provided for Cuban exiles (who are assumed to be active reactionaries). In one northern Florida county, the state troopers set up a roadblock near a Black community polling station and harassed the people.

In addition to such specific "dirty tricks," this election has revealed the historic structures of white supremacy and systemic inequality that weigh on the masses of Black people.

For example, in many states (including Florida), people convicted of felonies are denied the right to vote and in 13 states that lasts their whole lives. These laws developed in the 1800s as part of the Jim Crow system of white supremacy in the period after Reconstruction, when Black people were sentenced in large numbers to chain gangs.

In modern times, Black and Latino communities are being unequally targeted by the massive campaigns of the so-called "war on drugs," and so the disenfranchisement of former prisoners remains part of a larger picture of political inequality and national oppression. The number of people in prison has quadrupled since 1980, and for the first time in recent history, Black and Latino people again form a majority of those behind bars. And they are a majority of the four million ex-prisoners denied the right to vote. A report by the Sentencing Project estimated that a quarter of Black men, nationally, will be deprived the vote in this way. In addition, Florida's state government wrongly removed 8,000 people from the voting rolls, accusing them of having been imprisoned in other states.

In another revealing case, in Florida's Duval county, ballots were confusing for voters who had trouble reading--and 27,000 ballots were invalidated. A large number of them came from Black voters in this extremely poor, rural area--certainly enough to have changed the outcome of the national campaign.

The treatment of people who can't read reveals a lot about the class nature of this society, and about the depth of racist oppression.

In a revolutionary society special efforts would be made to involve oppressed people in politics, finding ways where they can be part of the exercise of power and helping them learn to read and study world affairs. But under Jim Crow in the plantation areas of the Deep South, where the southern Democratic Party controlled politics, tremendous efforts were made to prevent oppressed people from reading, and to prevent the illiterate from voting. Poll officials would ask Black people questions like "How many bubbles are there in a bar of soap," or "Recite the second article of the State constitution"--and send them away from the polls when they couldn't answer.

In election 2000, Duval County--where almost half the adult population can't read--continued that legacy from slavery and Jim Crow. This year, when voters couldn't understand the unusual presidential ballot, their mistakes were simply disqualified. "I kept looking around, pleading for help," a Black voter in Duval later said, "But they just kept saying, 'Read it, read it.'Ê" Meanwhile the ballots of military personnel flying in and out of the nearby Jacksonville airbase were handled with care.

Black voters have been mobilized to back Democrats in higher percentages than any other nationality in society. Millions voted for Al Gore, thinking he was "the lesser of two evils"--despite the fact that the Clinton-Gore administration had cut the safety net of the most poor, cut into affirmative action on federal contracts, upheld the death penalty, pushed for the destruction of public housing, and pressed ahead with the wholesale criminalization of a generation of youth.

And it is revealing that despite this support, the national Democratic Party has refused to make an issue out of the suppression of Black votes in Florida. In fact, the Gore campaign has quietly asked organizers to stop protests against racist practices in Florida--and has focused their election challenges in court on issues that do not involve or expose the oppression of Black people. The U.S. Justice Department (headed by Clinton's Attorney General Janet Reno) has refused to pursue this discrimination.

And this is how they treat the formal right to vote--which in this bourgeois society amounts to simply the "right" to pick which nominated oppressor will oppress the people for the next few years. This formal right to vote doesn't even begin to touch the underlying sources of oppression. And still, even these so-called "lesser evil" Democrats (never mind the Republicans) slide away from making a real issue of even this!

These actions of the Democrats underline the reality that even if all the Black votes were counted, and even if Gore were elected because of them, these ruling class representatives are fundamentally unwilling and incapable of mounting any serious challenge to the oppression of Black people in the 21st century.


One episode after another, one institution after another--as the infighting continues within the ruling class itself--it becomes clearer and clearer how rotten the whole election process is and how, in the final analysis, the votes of the people are only a vehicle for the ruling class to legitimize which oppressor will become President.

RCP Chairman Bob Avakian has summed up, "To state it in a single sentence, elections are controlled by the bourgeoisie, are not the means through which basic decisions are made in any case, and are really for the primary purpose of legitimizing the system and the policies and actions of the ruling class, giving them the mantle of a 'popular mandate,' and of channeling, confining and controlling the political activity of the masses of people." And in a thousand ways, this has been confirmed throughout this post election mess.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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