The Presidential Election

Election night proved to be the most exciting moment of the 2000 presidential campaign as American voters split almost perfectly over the candidacies of George W. Bush and Al Gore. The closeness of the race had been anticipated, but the networks added to the roller-coaster excitement by first predicting a Gore win in Florida and then withdrawing it, giving it to Mr. Bush and then withdrawing it. The race was so close that the votes in Florida had to be recounted.

Election night offers a number of lessons. First, the networks, who jointly employ the Voter News Service to help them in their projections, should learn that being late and right is better than being first and wrong. They also erred by projecting Florida before the polls closed in the western part of the state, which is in a different time zone.


Second, voters should not be forced to stand in line for hours waiting to vote. In Europe, most elections take place on Sunday, a holiday, so that workers can vote without being inconvenienced. Our elections should be on Sunday, or Election Day should be a national holiday, so that everyone can easily participate in the electoral process by voting and helping to get out the vote. Alternatively, polls could be open for a couple of days. The rules for absentee voting should also be liberalized for those who would rather vote by mail than at the polls.

Third, this election made it clear that more people will come out to vote when they believe it will make a difference. Although the national turnout did not increase dramatically, record turnouts occurred in states that were identified by the media as too close to call before the election. Still, about half of the national electorate did not vote, even though this was projected to be a very close election. The poor, the less educated and the young continue to be politically apathetic. Most of those who do not vote are simply bored by politics and the political process, according to a survey conducted by the Vanishing Voter project at Harvard University. They are too busy to vote or don’t think it matters. They have no sense of civic duty to motivate them to make the effort. Others are angry (most politicians are crooks) or disenchanted with politics (too partisan or too influenced by money). The question remains, how do we convince these people that voting is not just a right but a duty?

On the other hand, the great strength of American democracy was shown by the fact that, no matter the outcome, both citizens and politicians were willing to accept the results dictated by the voters through the Constitution. No one is rallying troops in the streets to overturn the decision. Nor are there any major accusations of voting fraud. Not many countries are so lucky.

The exit polls indicate that Catholics split their vote evenly between Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush, which hurt Al Gore since Catholics have traditionally voted more Democratic. Anyone committed to Catholic social teaching can only be appalled by the 2000 presidential campaign. Mr. Gore made clear his uncompromising commitment to the pro-abortion camp. He practically promised that being pro-choice would be a litmus test for his appointments to the Supreme Court. Mr. Bush, on the other hand, refused to signal a similar commitment to pro-life voters. While mouthing words like the culture of life, he said he would not reverse the F.D.A.’s approval of RU-486. Mr. Bush, unlike Mr. Gore, saw little advantage in making abortion a central issue of his campaign.

Nor were other parts of the Catholic social agenda prominent in this campaign. Both candidates supported capital punishment. The poor at home, let alone abroad, were practically ignored. Social Security and Medicare became political footballs, with both candidates making unrealistic promises. Environmental issues like global warming were downplayed. Motorists were told not to worry about gasoline prices - Mr. Gore will come up with a technological fix or Mr. Bush will unleash oil producers who will give consumers all the oil they want. Neither major candidate appealed to American idealism, neither asked for sacrifice, neither attempted to call for the best in the American electorate. Both appealed to petty self-interest, both read the polls and maneuvered accordingly, neither challenged people as a leader should.

American campaigns are not about educating the electorate on the issues. They are about motivating the already committed to vote and about swinging the undecided to your camp. Since the undecided tend to be less educated, we are not going to hear sophisticated policy analysis. But the next president must face complex problems and tough choices. The election is over; now the governing begins; and given the closeness of the vote and the lack of a mandate, governing is going to be difficult.

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