How the US was left in limbo

Confusion reigns after the most closely fought election in American history. So how did Bush and Gore end up deadlocked, and what happens now?
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The Independent US

America voted on Tuesday. Why does it still not have a President-elect?

America voted on Tuesday. Why does it still not have a President-elect?

The short answer is because the Democratic candidate, Vice-President Al Gore, did not like the result and withdrew his concession of defeat. He was able to do this only because the vote was so close.

In most national elections, US elections included, there is enough of a gap between the two top candidates for one to concede defeat on the basis of partial or provisional returns. This time, opinion poll forecasts were right: the American electorate was evenly divided between two candidates with very different assets and defects. The closeness of the vote is staggering: 200,000 votes nationwide, out of more than 101 million votes cast.

The state-by-state vote produced no more clarity: at dawn on Wednesday four states had yet to be decided: Florida, Iowa, Oregon and Wisconsin. Each had to count all of the votes. Iowa and Wisconsin pronounced narrowly for Gore; Florida, even more narrowly, for Bush. Oregon has yet to report because its vote is conducted by post. Even then, the margins in Florida and New Mexico were so small that they automatically triggered a recount under those states' rules. Confirmation of the recount results must wait for overseas and postal votes, for which the cut-off date is next Friday 17 November. Usually, the few thousand postal/overseas votes in each state have no bearing on the result. Not this time.


Why is the focus now on Florida?

The contest in Florida was always going to be one of the closest because it is so evenly balanced politically. There was added spice from the fact that the state governor is George W Bush's younger brother, Jeb, who had promised to "deliver" this marginal state for his brother. But the real reason is that, of the closest-run states, only Florida is large enough to swing the national vote. Under the US system, the presidency is decided by a vote in the presidential electoral college. Florida has 25 out of those 538 votes. Gore currently has 255 to Bush's 246, so whoever wins Florida wins the White House.

Not only, as it turned out, was the vote in Florida exceptionally close (1,700 votes out of seven million on the first count), but a combination of media and procedural confusion muddied the initial results. The Florida exit polls commissioned by a US media syndicate - and widely accepted as a provisional result - were not accurate. Through election night, Florida was first described as "too close to call", then as a Gore win, then as Bush win, and finally "too close to call" again. Gore then withdrew his concession of defeat.

With the vote so close, scrutiny then extended to the actual conduct of the ballot, which was also found wanting.


What problems were uncovered with the Florida ballot?

Numerous complaints surfaced early on in Palm Beach county, which appeared to have an unusually high number of spoiled ballots. The objections centred on the ballot papers' "butterfly" design, which placed Gore's name third - after Bush and the Reform Party candidate, Pat Buchanan. Dozens of people said they had voted for Buchanan by mistake and either tried in vain to get a new ballot or punched Gore's name as well, so annulling their vote.

Buchanan was surprised by the size of his vote in Palm Beach and said the votes probably belonged to Gore - but later said the vote should stand. The vote for Buchanan was twice the size of the margin between Gore and Bush, while the number of spoiled ballots was 10 times that margin. Bush staff later said the number of spoiled and Buchanan votes was not out of keeping with the county's voting record.

In Palm Beach and three other counties, there were also complaints about intimidation of ethnic minority voters, confusion over some voters' registration and mislaid or miscounted ballots.


Are these problems unique to Florida?

The Palm Beach ballot paper, designed to accommodate bigger print, appears to have presented a problem (although a similar design is used in some other states). But it seems extraordinary that ballot papers in a presidential election are not standardised across the country. The voting machines used are not standardised either, and they are slow and old, leading to queues that discourage people from voting.

Charges of intimidation, confusion over registration and lost ballots have come in from elsewhere in the country, and a complaint is pending from Republicans about why a judge acceded to a Democrat request to keep the polling stations in St Louis open beyond the advertised closing time. Normally, such complaints would be details in the margin; they have gained prominence this year because in some states they could affect the result.


When will anything be resolved?

Everything depends on Florida. There, at the request of the Gore campaign, votes from three randomly selected precincts in Palm Beach county were recounted yesterday by hand to establish the accuracy of the county's overall count. The result is to be announced tomorrow. But a court injunction backed by the Gore campaign will delay certification of the Florida result until Tuesday or later. Friday is the deadline for postal and overseas ballots to arrive, and the state authorities will not declare a result until then. Either campaign could concede defeat before then, but either could also prolong the uncertainty by challenging the legality of the ballot or the count in the courts.


Is it possible that there will still be no President-elect by 20 January, Inauguration Day?

It is unlikely, as any court hearings are bound to be accelerated. But if the electoral college is deadlocked, there is a provision in the Constitution for Congress to have a role in the absence of a President. The problem then is that Congress could also be deadlocked, with the casting vote in the Senate belonging to a Vice-President who has not yet been elected.


What about the electoral college?

The divergence between the popular (national) vote, which Gore appears to have won, and the electoral college vote, which determines the presidency and which Bush will win if he wins Florida, has unsettled many. Doubts about the system, in which the winner in each state (except in Maine and Nebraska) takes all that state's electoral college votes, have simmered for years, but the last time the popular vote disagreed with the electoral college was 1888. The issue of the electoral college is bound to be on the political agenda of the next administration.


Is it all Ralph Nader's fault and has he said sorry?

Nader, the Green Party candidate, won 3 per cent of the vote nationwide, more than the difference between Bush and Gore, and in several states Nader's votes may have swung the result against Gore. But the real culprit is the closeness of the Gore-Bush race, and Nader is unrepentant.


What difference, if any, will the new Congress make?

The deadlock in the presidential election was replicated in the Congressional vote. With some seats not yet confirmed, the Republicans' majority in the Senate will be cut to one at best; in the House of Representatives it will be four or five. Cross-party co-operation will be essential, and the new President will have to be an expert manipulator to get anything done.


Did the media mess it up?

The premature calling of the result in Florida and the two subsequent reversals made the media look feckless. However, the polling they used had proved accurate before and remained so in all other states. If it is established that there were problems with the Florida vote, they may also get the last laugh: it is possible that the exit poll was truer to the voters' intentions than the count.

Any false call on Florida - one of the earliest to close its polls - was bound to have a knock-on effect on the election. A win for either candidate in Florida was seen as an achievement that would presage eventual victory. The early call of Florida for Gore is said to have led Republicans further west to abandon their efforts to get the vote out. It could also have convinced Republican voters that there was no point in voting. This is why Congress has announced its inquiry.