Reflecting on baseball attendance, the philosopher Yogi Berra observed that “if people don’t want to come to the ballpark, how are you going to stop them?” He could have said much the same thing about the American electorate. If voters don’t want to go to the polls, what is going to stop them, too? Often enough, nothing has. Across the decades, Americans have chosen not to exercise the franchise aerobically. The turnout rate in national elections, typically below 60 percent, ranks near the bottom among the world’s developed democracies. The share of Americans who even bother registering to vote — 64.6 percent, according to the most recent figures from the United States Census Bureau — does not come close to rates exceeding 90 percent in Western Europe and Canada. Even in a supposedly banner year like 2008, when Barack Obama’s candidacy generated plenty of excitement, the turnout was not quite 62 percent, a pace that countries like Belgium, Denmark and Sweden would regard as dismal.
Against that backdrop, decisions about who is eligible to vote and who is not can inflame political passions. It has been thus since the earliest days of the republic, but for the last decade or more the fires have burned fiercely. The spark? Bush v. Gore, the politically supercharged case that in 2000 produced one of the United States Supreme Court’s most famous — some would say infamous — rulings. With the 2016 presidential race well underway, the consequences of Bush v. Gore are now examined by Retro Report, a series of video documentaries exploring major news stories of the past and their lasting impact.
A short version of this complex case is that the court rejected calls for a recount of extremely close Florida results in the 2000 presidential election. The justices’ 5-to-4 vote broke along the ideological lines that are now receiving renewed scrutiny with the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.
The decision delivered Florida’s 25 electoral votes to the Republican nominee, George W. Bush, handing him the narrowest of victories over his Democratic rival, Al Gore. By then, Florida’s voting process had been exposed as a mess. Not that it was alone in this regard. Whatever their political loyalties, Americans had to face a raw reality: Their electoral system, the crown jewel of their democracy, was severely blemished and needed resetting.