I am writing on Thursday morning, November 9. It now looks clear that well over a thousand voters in Palm Beach County, Florida, voted for Pat Buchanan when they meant to vote for Al Gore, and that well over ten thousand voided their ballots by voting for both. They did this because the county’s ballot, designed by a Democratic functionary and approved by both major parties, was confusing. Had these votes been recorded the way the voters presumably intended, Gore would have won. And unless the Florida recount and the final absentee ballots lead to more of a change than most experts now expect, Palm Beach is the only thing standing between George Bush and the presidency.
The case is headed for the courts. I haven’t seen what precedents the two sides will unearth, but clearly the Bush lawyers will argue that both parties had ample opportunity to object to the ballot format, that every voter is entitled to ask for a new ballot after messing up the first one, and that courts are not meant to overturn national elections because a local official made a poor formatting decision. The Gore lawyers will argue that the voters who voided their ballots were disenfranchised just as if the voting machine had somehow eaten their votes, and that the proper remedy is to let those who voted Tuesday in Palm Beach vote again (or conceivably to schedule another vote open to everyone in the county). It seems likely that the courts’ decision will determine who is the next President of the United States.
While the decision hangs in the balance, outrage will run high on both sides. And both sides will be tempted to behave in ways that exacerbate the other’s outrage. How the two candidates handle this risk communication problem is likely to determine how united a country the winner must attempt to govern. And given that judges are people, it may even determine who wins. If the legal conundrum seems hard to resolve, a solomonic court may (unconsciously) award the presidency to the candidate who seems least willing to divide and damage the country in order to win its highest office.
The problem is especially acute for Gore, who must either confirm or contradict his reputation for being simultaneously priggish and self-righteous on the one hand and inconsiderate, unempathic, and selfish on the other. He will be tempted to confirm both reputations by whining that he was robbed of his victory.
Bush’s task is easier because the downside of his reputation (focused mostly on questions about his intelligence, experience, and conviction) are not triggered by this crisis. His challenge is to confirm the upside: his reputation for being genial, human, and fair.
I have often made the distinction between public relations and stakeholder relations (of which risk communication is an important part). Public relations assumes an audience that is apathetic but credulous; with such an audience, smart communicators sell their strengths. Stakeholder relations and risk communication, on the other hand, assume an audience that is attentive but skeptical; now in addition to selling your strengths you have to acknowledge your weaknesses and your opponent’s strengths. Since elections are won by persuading masses of apathetic-but-credulous voters to cast their vote your way, electoral politics usually has more in common with PR than with risk communication.
But not in a crisis. Right now, the public (and the judiciary) is watching with unusual alertness. Right now, both Gore and Bush need to acknowledge the merits of the other side’s position and the legitimacy of the other side’s outrage. They need to recognize their own outrage and keep it from distorting their judgment about how to communicate most effectively. They need to counter-project the other side’s tendency to make outraged assumptions about what happened. Right now, Gore and Bush need to do risk communication.
Risk communication talking points for the candidates:
- Both: It now seems that an honest misjudgment, made by local officials and accepted by both local parties, seriously affected the vote count in Palm Beach, and thus the Florida totals, and thus the election.
- Gore version: It is tempting to claim the other party did this on purpose. But there is not the slightest whisper of a hint of anything like corruption, undue influence, or any impropriety in the Palm Beach results.
Bush version: I know it must be tempting to some of our opponents to suppose that my party did this on purpose. Don’t take my word for this; follow the bipartisan investigation. There is no evidence of anything like corruption, undue influence, or any impropriety in the Palm Beach results.
- Gore version: I know it must be tempting to our opponents to suppose that the Palm Beach results are entirely legitimate, or that they didn’t really affect the outcome of the election. Don’t take my word for this; follow the bipartisan investigation. The presidency itself hinges on a local official’s error that led thousands of people to vote for the wrong candidate or to void their ballots.
Bush version: It is tempting to claim that the Palm Beach results are entirely legitimate, or that they didn’t really affect the outcome of the election. But it is awful for the presidency itself to hinge on a local official’s error that led thousands of people to vote for the wrong candidate or to void their ballots.
- Gore version: I believe that the American people elected me on Tuesday, and that a local official’s error should not outweigh the public’s mandate. But I understand and respect the contrary view that errors happen and are not sufficient reason for overturning an election.
Bush version: I believe that the American people elected me on Tuesday, and that errors happen and are not sufficient reason for overturning an election. But I understand and respect the contrary view that a local official’s error should not outweigh the public’s mandate.
- Both: We will pursue in the courts the argument for/against a new election in Palm Beach County. The case will probably go all the way to the Supreme Court but I believe it can be resolved quickly.
- Both: It is not for me to say what the courts should decide. Separation of powers and an independent judiciary are one of the fundamentals of our system of government. Obviously, you know what I hope the courts will decide.
- Gore version: If the decision goes against me and the courts rule that Tuesday’s election is final, I will immediately concede. George Bush will be the president-elect, period. I will expect my party and my supporters to join me in uniting behind the new president.
Bush version: If the decision goes against me and the courts authorize a new election in Palm Beach County, and if that election changes the national outcome, I will immediately concede. Al Gore will be the president-elect, period. I will expect my party and my supporters to join me in uniting behind the new president.
Copyright © 2000 by Peter M. Sandman