Dec 9, 2010

Elections 101: Transfers of Power

Today is the 10th anniversary of the Supreme Court's order to end the Florida recount during the 2000 presidential election. Three days later, on Dec. 12, 2000, the Court released its Bush v. Gore decision and made George W. Bush the president.

I've been thinking about this a bunch this week because of what's going on in the Ivory Coast. The situation has garnered almost no attention in the U.S. (with the important exceptions of articles here and here), but here are the basics: a November 28 presidential election between incumbent Laurent Gbagbo and challenger Alassane Outtara has had a disputed outcome, leading both candidates to declare themselves president. The United Nations, African Union European Union, United States, and many of Ivory Coast's West African neighbors have all said (more here) that Outtara won the election and called on Gbagbo to step down, but Gbagbo insists that he won and, with control of the state media and military, has a lot of power behind him. Outtara, on the other hand, has the support of a rebel army that has controlled the northern part of Ivory Coast since 2002. At least 28 people have been killed in election and post-election violence, shortages of food and gas are being reported, the U.N. has taken its non-essential staff out of the country, and people are beginning to worry about a civil war.

Obviously I thought that Bush v. Gore was a horrendous decision and that the weeks leading up to it were filled with all kinds of bullsh*t (terrifically chronicled and analyzed by Eric Alterman at The Nation today). I am, however, grateful to live in a country in which handovers of power are done peacefully (except for that whole Civil War). As Alterman describes, there were some threats of violence and rioting in Florida in 2000, but all in all the whole thing happened remarkably peacefully.

I remember learning at some point in high school history (or was it when I was teaching high school history?) that the 1800 election was considered one of the essential turning points in U.S. history, a moment when the entire national experiment could have collapsed, and I totally did not understand why. I bet you don't either, so here goes for an explanation.

Reach way back into your 16-year-old brain and you may remember that in the original Constitution, each member of the Electoral College voted for two candidates. The person with the highest number of votes became president; the person who came in second became vice president. But by 1800, political parties had formed and candidates ran as part of a president/VP ticket. So Thomas Jefferson/Aaron Burr ran on one ticket against John Adams/Charles Pinckney on the other. The trouble started when, naturally, the supporters of the first ticket in the Electoral College all cast their two votes for Jefferson and Burr, resulting in a tie. The House of Representatives was constitutionally-mandated to resolve the dispute, and it took the Reps 36 votes before they finally elected Jefferson as president.

The 1800 election really had two remarkable things about it. One was that a sitting incumbent president, John Adams, willingly and peacefully gave up his seat after being defeated. Adams was, after all, the first American incumbent to lose his presidential re-election campaign (Washington resigned after two terms - equally remarkable, in its own way). The second was that after the drawn-out debate over whether Jefferson or Burr would ascend to the presidency, when the House of Representatives finally voted for Jefferson, Burr willingly gave up his claim to the title and became Vice President.

That's enough about 1800, although if you want to read more about it, here's a great article. For 2000 and 2010, I'll just say this: I'm glad to live in a place where, as much as we may disagree with our political opponents, and even hate them sometimes, we keep our elections peaceful (if not always totally honest).

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