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Wednesday, 15 November, 2000, 16:20 GMT
Philip Davies answered your questions

Philip Davies, Professor of American Studies at Britain's DeMontfort University, joined us for a live chat and answered your questions on the election cliffhanger in the US.

Full transcript

Tony, UK:
What happens if the process of counts, recounts and court action is not settled by January 20th? Could Congress ask Bill Clinton to hang on until a decision is reached?

Philip Davies:
No, Congress could not ask Bill Clinton to stay on. The constitution ends his term of office at noon on January 20th. If there is no president chosen, then the Speaker at the House of Representatives is asked to serve as acting president.

But in order to do so he has to resign as speaker and resign from Congress, which would be a big sacrifice. If the Speaker does not take the office, the president pro tempori of the Senate becomes the acting president, although he would also have to resign his Senate position.

Currently that person is Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina who is about 97 years old and looking forward to becoming a centenarian senator.


Daniel Verghese:
Doesn't the current election debacle indicate that it is time for electoral reform in the US, possibly to a simpler PR system?

Philip Davies:
I am sure that there will be a great deal of discussion for reform. Certainly there have been many attempts previously to reform the Electoral College system - if I remember correctly, several hundred attempts to do so during America's history.

Nonetheless, it is quite true that this particular election is likely to concentrate people's minds. We do have to keep in mind though, that the mere effort of counting one hundred million votes or more would still be very considerable and in a national election where only one hundred thousand votes or so divided the contestants there might be even more confusion over recounts around the country.

One of the advantages of the Electoral College has been it identifies where particular problems lie and concentrates the remedies in those regions.


Andy, UK:
A lot of criticism has been focussed on the Electoral College system. It's not the Electoral College that's the problem, but the "winner-takes-all" policy used by most states. Do you agree?

Philip Davies:
It is true that 48 states use the "winner-take-all" process and it is also true that it can be changed by simple legislation not by constitutional change. In Maine and Nebraska already the Electoral College votes can be distributed between the candidates.

This is not done on a PR system however, but it is done by dividing those states into their Congressional constituencies for the sake of the presidential election.

If the system was changed so that Electoral College votes of other states were divided between candidates, it might also mean that the requirement of an absolute majority of Electoral College votes would have to be revisited since without the block votes of states it may be more difficult to establish an absolute majority.


Simon, UK:
Why is Bush, if he wishes to abide by democratic means, trying to prevent a recount?

Philip Davies:
The argument given by the Bush campaign is that a partial recount is discriminatory against their voters. A machine recount does count all of the clear votes. A hand recount might be able to identify unclear votes.

Therefore if the hand recount is only held in counties that are dominated by Democratic voters then it is likely to identify more unclear votes for the Democrats than for Republican candidates. So only with a full recount by hand of all areas, including Republican favouring areas, would one find all of the unclear votes.

The assumption has been that certainly errors happen in elections but they happen fairly evenly to each side and therefore one can still rely on the machine counted vote. It is only when the margin gets so close, as it is this time, that the natural rough patches in a huge democracy come under such close scrutiny.

Quite clearly, neither side wants their ox gored and so there is a good deal of partisanship in the arguments they are finding. But nonetheless the argument that mistakes are random and yet searching for them in one place means that the corrections are not random holds some credibility.


Bob Jones, UK:
Are the postal votes counted as they come in? If so, how have they split so far?

Philip Davies:
The answer to this isn't clear. Florida has not issued any figures on host votes. Certainly in some communities postal votes are counted as they come in but I am not sure whether this applies to the Florida communities in question.

But the suggestion seems to be that no figure for these will be issued until after the final date for the arrival of postal votes which is November 17th.


D Marchant, Honduras:
What chance is there that the U.S. Supreme Court will end up involved in resolving this dispute?

Philip Davies:
If the two sides keep pressing their legal cases it is quite likely to end up in the Supreme Court. So to a great extent, whether it gets that far depends on whether either side backs down and a political solution is reached before a legal solution has to be imposed.


D.K.Kohli, U.K:
Is it not possible a suggestion is presented that for half of the president's term Mr G Bush be the president and the other half the term Mr Al Gore be the president?

Philip Davies:
That might seem a very fair response but fundamentally the constitution does not allow it. The constitution requires that next January a new president take office for four years and no other way out is presented.


Sean McGill, UK:
What effect will the current events in Florida have upon the perceived legitimacy of the eventual winner in Washington?

Philip Davies:
Certainly at first one expects that whoever becomes president will have a difficult job in presenting themselves as a representative of the whole nation.

Nonetheless, political leaders in the United States very often reach out in a bi-partisan fashion even when not pressured by a election of this kind and many US citizens do not particularly see themselves as partisan either. Therefore there is a bedrock of political cohesion on which the new president will be able to build.

When we look back, there are a couple of occasions when effectively disputed presidential elections have taken place and yet the presidents who served have managed to do so with the support of that public.

I think it will make the new president vulnerable to a particularly strong electoral challenge in 2004. However, we do have to remember also that a president like John Kennedy, who won by a slim margin, still managed to be a very strong president.


Marie Tims, England:
Do you think it's fair to announce results from states on the east side and in the south of the US, while they're still voting on the West Coast?

Philip Davies:
It may not be fair but the argument is that it is protected by the Freedom of Speech clause in the First Amendment to the US Constitution.

It is not clear from research whether early announcements have a very strong effect on West Coast voting, but it is certainly true that voters in California say, are hearing the results from much of the country two or three hours before their own polls close. So it is fair to argue that they are voting in a different context to the rest of their citizens.

Former President Gerald Ford and others have suggested that the presidential voting period be extended to 24 hours with the same closing time across the whole of the United States thereby preventing this problem, but that reform has not met with congressional support.


Terry Hoggart:
Wouldn't the fairest thing to do be to do a hand recount in all Florida counties (and indeed in all counties of all other disputed states like Oregon)?

Philip Davies:
This is a good point but it would take a long time, it would cost a lot of money and it might always lead to more disputes, for example, over precisely what a voter intended their vote to show.

All of these issue put pressure on those organising the election to try to come to a firm conclusion quickly and therefore as non-disruptively as possible.


John Muir:
Can you really imagine either candidate reaching out in a bi-partisan fashion after the bitterness of the last week?

Philip Davies:
Political rhetoric can shift very quickly and in many ways it will be the rhetoric and communication that matter rather than the underlying bitterness that the more partisan and involved political community will continue to feel.

There is a tremendous tendency in America to rally in support of the country when it is threatened and continuing bitter dispute would be threatening.

So while I am sure that many people are going to be upset whoever wins, I rather feel that the majority will be almost looking for an excuse to smooth things over and that therefore they will react positively to any attempts by the new president to act in a generous and inclusive fashion. Having said all that, you are quite right that it does depend on the quality of whoever is elected to be able to carry this off.


Terry Hoggart:
Do you think that President Clinton has a role in sorting this election dispute out?

Philip Davies:
President Clinton seems to be maintaining a firm and presidential distance. Probably this is the right way to go given that even relatively low-level officials in Florida are being harangued for their perceived political bias.

It would be very difficult for Clinton to become involved without it being seen as a move on behalf of the Democratic candidate.


Nickle, USA:
How will history show Nader's role in this election?

Philip Davies:
It is quite true that Ralph Nader gained enough votes in Florida to suggest that Al Gore would have won that state without Nader's intervention. Certainly the opinion polls suggest that Nader's vote would otherwise have split about two-to-one in Gore's favour.

This also means that if Nader had not been on the ballot in New Hampshire, Gore would probably have taken that state and other states which are still potentially marginal might have slipped more firmly into the Gore column.

Nonetheless, looking at the Palm Beach County ballot, you will notice that ten parties are represented, including the Socialist Party, the Socialist Worker's Party and the Worker's World Party. If any of these had not been on the ballot, given the small margin, that might have been enough to make the difference for Gore also.

Florida makes it quite easy for minor parties to get on the ballot and these three small Left-wing parties only managed to get on the ballot together in two other states. Therefore Florida gave the opportunity for small parties of all political stripes to present themselves to the public.

I have no doubt that Nader and the Green Party, as the largest of the minor parties, and as one almost certainly taking most of its vote from potential Gore voters, will be the one that is remembered in the textbooks. But when things are this close, it is impossible to identify a single cause of the result.

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