Ah, the 99% Invisible Halloween special. At long last. Sure, “Butterfly Effects” was actually released on November 3rd, and most people would say that the 2000 Florida election scandal has nothing to do with Halloween, but those people though are gravely misinformed. This guy dresses up as the “butterfly ballot with hanging chad” every Halloween, and it always kills. In fact, it has only gotten better with time.
For non-Americans and/or people younger than 21, the Butterfly Ballot (for which the episode is named) is the atrociously designed ballot that influenced the outcome of the 2000 United States Presidential election—the one that first brought President George Bush to power. Though he lost the popular vote to Democratic opponent Al Gore, President Bush’s win (or perhaps, “win”) in Florida gave him enough electoral college votes to become the nation’s 43rd president. 1
The so-called Butterfly Ballot split the names of the candidates over two facing pages. Voters used a small metal rod to poke a hole in the page corresponding to the candidate they intended to vote for. The issue, though, is that the ballot was confusing—really confusing. That was particularly true for the elderly residents of the county’s myriad retirement communities (one of whom is Sam Greenspan’s charming grandmother, who opened the show). 2
Voting a Bush/Cheney ticket is a straightforward task: punch the first hole. But a vote for Gore/Lieberman? Is it the second hole? Or is it the third? Taking a moment to study it, it seems clear. It is actually the third hole you need to punch. But if you’re voting for dozens of offices, and feel pressure to move quickly through the busy polling place, it is understandable that you might make a mistake, and instead vote for the ultra-conservative Buchanan/Foster ticket. And indeed, the vote count reflected that mistake: Buchanan/Foster received 3,407 votes, exceeding the campaign’s own expectation by 3,000. The election was decided by 537 votes, out of almost six million cast.
This is perhaps my favorite topic in recent American history. Just think of the implications of the Bush presidency—he oversaw our response to 9/11, our entrance into Iraq and Afghanistan, our climate and energy policy, and our financial and monetary policy in the run-up to the Great Recession. And his reign came about in no small part because of bad design. There is a lot of good reading available on the topic—Wikipedia’s not a bad place to start.
And don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of things went wrong during and in the run-up to voting day in Florida. All five major news networks reported that polls closed earlier than they actually did in Florida, which kept an estimated 15,000 people from voting. Any one of these errors, if avoided, might have changed the outcome of Florida’s election. A different result in Florida would have meant a different president. And who knows what a different president would have meant for the country and the world.
But the best part about this episode? It doesn’t take the bait. This easily could have been a dirge for the first decade of the millennium. If intuition can be trusted, I suspect the podcast listening demographic skews left; they wouldn’t have minded. But that—questions of politics and if only—is not what 99% Invisible is about. It is about design, plain and simple. They gave the history of the ballot and the context for its relevance; they interviewed relevant, smart, and funny people. The episode was breezy, educational, light-hearted—all the things that make the show so great. The power of the episode was what it left unsaid, what it left to play out in the mind of the listener.
- If you are confused about what the electoral college is or how it works, here’s a good video from CGP Grey explaining the whole thing. Just a warning, if you like the idea of citizens being in direct control of their government, it will likely make you angry. ^
- According to retirement community hub 55places, there are sixty nine “active adult retirement communities” in Palm Beach Country. ^
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