Fourteen years after the debacle that was the 2000 presidential election, isn’t it time for Democrats to admit that Green Party candidate Ralph Nader did not “put the Republican Bush-Cheney ticket into the White House,” as the Gazette editorialized last Monday? This canard has been so thoroughly discredited that it should have died long ago. Yet each election cycle, Democrats resurrect it as the basis for attacking anyone who challenges their perceived entitlement to the votes of free American citizens. The Gazette thus derides two other nominees — Mountain Party candidate Bob Henry Baber for U.S. Senate and Independent Ed Rabel for Congress in the 2nd District — as “token, symbolic candidates” who can only play the same “spoiler role” in the 2014 election that Nader supposedly played in 2000, by “diverting” votes from their Democratic opponents. What a whopper!
Democrat Al Gore lost the 2000 presidential election for many reasons. These include: 1) the winner-take-all math of the Electoral College gave Bush the win, even though 543,895 more Americans voted for Gore; 2) five Republican-appointed Justices of the Supreme Court ensured Bush’s victory, by halting a recount that was ongoing in the state of Florida; 3) Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris — a Republican who served as state chair of the Bush-Cheney campaign — improperly purged thousands of Democrats from the state’s voter rolls; 4) faulty ballot designs in several Florida counties cost Gore thousands more votes; 5) at least 250,000 registered Democrats in Florida voted for Bush instead of Gore; 6) Gore lost his home state of Tennessee; and 7) Gore lost Bill Clinton’s home state of Arkansas. But for any one of these factors — none of which the Gazette mentions — Gore would have won the presidency.
The Gazette nonetheless insists that “simple arithmetic” shows Nader “handed” Bush the presidency. Why? Because Nader received 97,488 votes in Florida, and Bush won the state — and hence the election — by only 537 votes. If only Gore had received Nader’s votes, the thinking goes, then Gore would have won Florida, and thus the presidency.
One Democrat who rejects this line of reasoning is Al Gore himself — and with good reason. Florida’s presidential ballot included seven other candidates, in addition to Nader, who received more votes than the margin of difference between Bush and Gore. Democrats therefore have no principled basis for singling out Nader, or any other candidate, as responsible for Gore’s loss. The “spoiler” charge persists, however, by feeding on a form of political bigotry, which presumes that major party candidates are the only legitimate contenders, while relegating all others to the status of second-class citizens, who can only “siphon” or “divert” votes from the Republicans and Democrats. But the major parties don’t own our votes. They have no more right to compete for them than do Mountain Party candidates, Libertarians, independents or any others.
Democrats understandably felt cheated by the result of the 2000 presidential election. More Americans voted for Gore, yet Bush prevailed. But the problems that plagued that election won’t be solved by attacking minor party candidates. Instead, Democrats should focus on much needed reforms that would make our electoral system more democratic. For example, every state should apportion its Electoral College vote proportionally, as Nebraska and Maine already do. And election officials like Katherine Harris should be prohibited from moonlighting as partisan operatives with an interest in the outcome of elections they regulate. Branding minor party candidates as “spoilers” is not a reform, but a step toward totalitarianism. Saddam Hussein won elections by suppressing voter choice. So did the Communist Party in the former Soviet Union. That’s not how democracy works in the United States, and it never was.
Historically, minor party candidates played an important role in the American two-party system, by championing new policies the major parties later adopted. These include the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, a progressive income tax, Social Security and the 40-hour work week, to name just a few. More recently, Nader enabled voters to show their support for ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, cracking down on corporate crime, adopting a single payer health-care system, and many other positions the Republicans and Democrats either ignored or opposed. Baber and Rabel will do the same in 2014.
Democrats should stop challenging minor party candidates’ legitimate participation in the political process, and start asking why voters would support them. It’s a great way to win votes, and maybe even an election.
Oliver B. Hall is founder and legal counsel to the Center for Competitive Democracy. He represents Ralph Nader as a private attorney.