Volume 3, Issue 2 University of Houston
Effects of 2000 election may be far-reaching
By Ken Fountain
The longest and most convoluted presidential race in more than a century ended with Vice President Al Gore's concession speech last week. But the repercussions of the election are bound to last well past Inauguration Day, according to UH faculty experts on the American political process.
In the wake of the 36-day battle over Florida's electoral votes, politicians from New York Senator-elect Hillary Rodham Clinton to members of Houston City Council have called for a review of voting methods. UH law professor John Jay Douglass, an expert on election and campaign finance law, said the most obvious targets for change have been punch-card voting machines, the source of the wrangling over Florida's "dimpled, pregnant and hanging chads."
He noted that even before the 2000 election, officials in Harris County had decided to get rid of the punch-card system because it has long been known it could present the type of problems seen in Florida.
At the very least, Douglass said half-jokingly, people might want "to buy some stock in the new voting machine technology companies, since there will soon be a demand for them."
Although voting technology may be changed, attempts to alter or eliminate the Electoral College probably won't be so successful, Douglass said. He noted there have been more than 1,000 attempts to change or get rid of the system since the founding fathers conceived it in the 18th century -- and all of them have failed.
The reason, Douglass said, is that changing the College would require a constitutional amendment, which would have to be approved by three-fourths of the states. Smaller states, which carry few electoral votes, would rightfully fear they would lose a great deal of their influence if the national election became a straight popular vote.
Douglass said there might be some merit to the system in places like Nebraska and Maine, where the number of congressional districts in those states decides electors. In that system, the popular vote winner of the state doesn't get all of that state's electoral votes; rather, he or she wins the votes of the districts he or she carries.
But an attempt to institute a similar system in other states would probably meet with resistance from the whichever major political party holds a majority in those states, Douglass said.
"I liken this election to the 50,000-year flood," he said. "National elections are almost never this tight.
"Usually, you have tight elections in races for things like county boards or cemetery trustees, where there are few votes -- not in elections where there are millions of votes," Douglass said.
Another concern that arose during the 2000 election was the impact of the media on political campaigns and the election process. Garth Jowett, a communication professor specializing in propaganda, said he was "fascinated and appalled" by the disparate treatment the presidential candidates received in the mainstream media.
Specifically, Jowett said he was troubled by "deliberate distortions" of Vice President Al Gore's comments, painting him in the public mind as given to wild exaggerations, such as ideas that he invented the Internet, discovered "Love Canal" and was the model for the protagonist of the novel and film Love Story.
In each instance, Jowett said the press took something true Gore said and changed it to make it seem the vice president was "a serial liar."
For example, Gore told reporters that as a congressman, he spearheaded legislation to more fully develop the already existing framework of the Internet and had served on the environmental committee that investigated toxic waste sites, including Love Canal.
The author of Love Story confirmed that Gore, as a student at Yale, was indeed one of the people on which he based the character in the story.
Jowett said the press seemed more lenient when it came to Gov. George W. Bush's misstatements, deciding that "the people already believe he's stupid, so that's what we'll give them."
Those examples, Jowett said, point to the "arrogance of the press" in deciding how to report stories to the public.
"We're seeing a new breed of journalist who doesn't believe in the necessity of fact," Jowett said.
When this kind of journalist has an error pointed out, Jowett said the reaction is to say he or she didn't have time to do the necessary research.
By contrast, Jowett said the media generally did a good job in covering
the legal maneuvering in the month following the election.
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