When I heard that Secretary of State John Kerry thought “there ought to be a recount” in the 2013 Venezuelan presidential election and said that the Obama Administration would be having “serious questions about the viability of that government" if “there are huge irregularities,” I did understand that this was pretty much pro forma stuff, not to be taken too seriously. The Cold War may be twenty years gone now, but the Administration probably still figures that it won’t hurt itself any by talking tough about people who sound like Communists, now will it? But Kerry’s remarks did, sadly, remind me of the time when then-Senator John Kerry might have raised a meaningful objection to a questionable presidential election – Bush-Gore in 2000 – but instead chose to forever hold his peace.
The final act of that tumultuous election is little remembered. It actually took place on January 6, 2001 at a joint session of Congress convened to accept the votes reported by the Electoral College. By that point, much of the country had already undergone a major civics tutorial and most everyone now realized that the peculiarities of our electoral process could legitimately give an Electoral College victory – the only one that counts – to George Bush, despite the undisputed fact that over half a million more people had voted for Al Gore. The win would be legitimate, however, only if the tallying of the votes in the individual states was legitimate and there were – and still are – many who did not think that was the case in Florida. But for most, the Supreme Court’s 5-4 party line decision that shut down that state’s recount and would give Bush a 271-266 Electoral College win had put an end to the matter. Most, but not all.
So when outgoing Vice President Gore, ironically presiding over the session in his role as President of the Senate, asked if there were objections to the report of Florida’s electors giving their twenty-five votes to the Bush-Cheney ticket, Rep. Alcee Hastings of that state replied that he did object, “because of the overwhelming evidence of official misconduct” and “deliberate fraud.”
Hastings was followed by two more Florida Representatives with similar objections. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas later spoke of “millions of Americans who have been disenfranchised by Florida's inaccurate vote count.” Rep. Maxine Waters of California told the body she rose “to object to the fraudulent 25 Florida electoral votes.” Georgia Rep. Cynthia McKinney even moved “that the House withdraw from the joint session in order to allow consideration of the facts surrounding the slate of electors from Florida.”
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In all, thirteen members of the House, mostly members of the Congressional Black Caucus, raised objections to accepting the Florida vote that gave Bush the White House, but absolutely nothing came of it. Why? Because in order for any matter to be taken up in Joint Session it must be in writing and signed by a member of each branch. But, as Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. of Illinois put it, January 6, 2001 was “a sad day in America ... when we can't find a senator to sign these objections.” There were fifty Democratic Senators – John Kerry among them – and not a one would lend a signature to the effort.
Had even one Senator stepped up and signed one of those objections, this might not have been an obscure, forgotten moment in the country’s electoral history. Could anything have happened that day that would have actually prevented George Bush Jr.’s ascension to the White House?
Realistically speaking, probably not. But could the legitimacy of his election have been further called into question that day – and in a very public and perhaps memorable way? Obviously it could have been. Would that have mattered? The answer to that question is unknowable, but consider this: One of the thirteen who spoke out that day was Rep. Barbara Lee of California, who has since gone on to vote against both wars started by the Bush Administration. Anything that would have weakened Bush’s presidency – and legitimately weakened it, we might say – might have it made it a bit less likely that Lee would have had to cast those votes.
But it would appear that US Senators – past and present – only object to presidential elections when they’re someone else’s.