Post-Election 2000 (posted November 18, 2000)

It was not a pretty sight on Election Night. With the country closely divided between Republicans and Democrats, network anchors cited a Florida exit poll to declare early in the evening that the Sunshine State had gone for Vice President Al Gore.

Within an hour, both Texas Governor George W. Bush and his campaign manager Karl Rove were disputing this projection, claiming based on their knowledge of Florida elections that Bush would win Florida. The networks then took back the projection and the country waited as the actual balloting was tabulated.

Eventually, the networks declared Bush the victor and then retracted that judgment, recognizing the Florida results were not final. The resulting recounts and legal challenges have left a maze of charges and counter-charges between the two parties that is quite dangerous.

In this report, I look at the aftermath of Election 2000. I examine what happened, and what it tells us about our system. Regardless of the campaign outcome, observers should understand the importance of maintaining the trust and integrity of our political system.

Faulty Exit Polls

This is not the first time a network exit poll has been wrong, but it certainly is the only time an exit poll miscue has altered the apparent outcome of a presidential general election. In 1996, the networks incorrectly predicted the defeat of U.S. Senator Robert Smith of New Hampshire. In 1992, early returns from the Republican New Hampshire primary indicated that insurgent Pat Buchanan had come close to defeating President George Bush, a result that was not ratified by the actual balloting.

In theory, there is no reason why exit polls should go wrong. Unlike a pre-election survey where voters are interviewed about how they plan to vote down the road, an exit pollster asks people leaving the ballot box how they just voted. Since the networks do not project a state based on an exit poll unless one candidate has at least a two percentage point margin of victory, most exit polls have an excellent record of forecasting the outcome.

In practice, however, there are many things that can go wrong. In Florida, for example, pollsters reported difficulties with the sample in Miami and Dade County. Apparently, the voters who filled out the exit poll were not fully representative of all the people who cast ballots, which created an obvious source of error.

Pollsters also can choose the wrong precincts to sample. Typically, opinion surveyors base their state projections on 20 to 30 bell-weather precincts from around the state. The goal is to have precincts with a history of correct predictions of the final vote. In eras of political stability, this is not difficult to achieve. Pollsters merely look at recent elections, see which precincts have a good track record, and build the sample around those areas.

The complication comes during periods of political turmoil where past voting returns are no longer good predictors of election outcomes. If a state has a major influx of new residents or if the political complexion shifts between Republicans and Democrats, past results do not guarantee future trends.

The problem in Florida is that it is a state that has undergone a major influx of Northerners and that has shifted its party leanings. This undermines the ability of exit pollsters to produce an accurate sample of precincts, and a correct vote projection.

In the future, the challenges facing exit pollsters will grow even larger. More and more states are encouraging mail balloting through which citizens vote prior to Election Day. As voters take advantage of this option, it has the potential to skew exit polls even further. Because exit polls are based on those casting ballots on Election Day, anything that physically removes voters from voting booths compromises the ability of pollsters to project election outcomes.

Misleading Media Coverage

In any fast-breaking story, the challenge facing broadcasters is to report information accurately, impartially, and expeditiously. The problem in an era of market fragmentation, hyper-competition, and the desire to win the ratings game is that the third goal of fast results trumps the other objectives of accuracy and impartially.

On Election Night, the national networks made far too many errors of grave importance: inaccurately projecting Florida, first for Gore and then for Bush; incorrectly forecasting that Bush was the new president, and prematurely declaring that Democrat Maria Cantwell had defeated Washington Senator Slade Gorton, which would have put the U.S. Senate into a dead-even split between Republicans and Democrats.

Following the election, many reporters have compounded the uncertainty by rushing to announce ballot recounts before official government agencies, by airing complaints of citizens and party officials about election "irregularities" without substantiating evidence, and by speculating about possible political scenarios without a clear understanding of legal and constitutional processes. Given the grave challenges we face in sorting out the legal complexities of this election, all of these problems have made it difficult for ordinary citizens to understand the controversy.

The Legal Perils

In a situation of uncharted political and constitutional waters, both politicians and journalists need to understand one important fact. Whoever wins the presidency needs to do so in a manner that voters find credible and trustworthy. The longterm health of the republic is far more crucial than the victory either of Gore or Bush.

One of the great ironies of the current dilemma is that for years, the United States has been sending impartial election observers to foreign countries to oversee election processes and safeguard the fairness and integrity of the system. Now, our very own political system has exposed the unsavory side of American elections, which is that our election procedures are weak, unclear, and ambiguous.

A number of our campaigns in recent decades have been plagued by late (or early) poll closings, confusing ballots, unclear registration processes, and uncertainties over mail ballots. Typically, these problems lie undiscovered because they are thought to be randomly distributed and therefore of no systematic advantage either to Republican or Democratic candidates. Election 2000, however, demonstrates that this is not always the case and that it is time for the United States to clean up its own political act before sending expert observers to foreign countries.

The Need for Trust

The greatest danger of this presidential election is that the ultimate winner will have little public legitimacy and will be in a weak position to govern. With the United States being the most powerful country in the world and facing a host of domestic and international problems, it is crucial that we have a president and Congress that has the trust and confidence of the electorate. Without that trust, the very glue that holds our system together vanishes and produces the moral equivalent of a banana republic. We are more used to reading about election irregularities in South American countries than our own, and we have grown complacent about nurturing fair political procedures and institutions.

The Nixon Example

Ultimately, one man will win this campaign and become president. The loser should read the history of Richard Nixon. In 1960, Nixon stood on the edge of a precipice. Following an election decided by a difference of one-tenth of a percentage point between himself and Democrat John F. Kennedy, Nixon heard allegations of election fraud in Chicago (charges which are believed by many election experts). He had the option of contesting the results, arguing that the election was flawed, and going to court. With deep introspection, Nixon decided that although he really wanted to be president, it would be far too dangerous for democracy for him to contest the election result and leave the country hanging without firm leadership in the middle of the Cold War. He conceded the election even though he privately felt the election had been taken from him fraudulently. It was the most statesmanlike act of his entire political career.

Gore and Bush should heed the Nixon example and put the national interest above their individual desire to win this election. Nixon eventually was rewarded for his statesmanship by coming back eight years later and winning the presidency. The country respected the "profile in courage" that Nixon had undertaken following the contentious and closely-contested 1960 presidential general election.