Unprecedented: The 2000 Presidential Election (2003)

Although we may never know with certainty the identity of the winner of this year’s presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the nation’s confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law.
— Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, in his dissent from the majority opinion in Bush v. Gore

Despite its title, Unprecedented: The 2000 Presidential Election is very much about precedence. Considering intersections of race, money, influence, and political power, the documentary chronicles many of the snafus of the 2000 Presidential Election in Florida, including illegal voter purges, intimidation at the polls, the infamous butterfly ballot, dimpled chads, media manipulation, and nepotism run amok.

Though its political leaning is no secret — the DVD “Campaign Edition” is subtitled “How Bush Stole the 2000 Presidential Election” — the film’s critical reach extends beyond simple partisan rivalries. Virtually every frame exposes prejudicial practices and attitudes set in motion not just with the Bush Administration or the Republican Party, but with this country’s birth: the film reminds us that the entire electoral system was designed to exclude “undesirables” (read: minorities, the poor, and women) from governmental power centers. Florida wasn’t a distortion of the electoral process; it was a direct reflection of historical forces at work.

Introduced by Danny Glover, the film uses traditional documentary devices — talking heads, press footage, witness interviews — to generate a compelling argument: the Republican Party used two “tool sets” to win the 2000 presidential election. First up: a series of well-planned, shady, and sometimes lucky machinations, particularly through the “good ole boy” network, with Republican campaign coordinator and Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris and Governor Jeb Bush as key players. Next: U.S. racist and classist inclinations. What’s more, the documentary goes on to suggest, in the current climate of corporate media, soft money, and computerization, that’s how all elections can be won.

Unprecedented uses specific examples of misconduct to support its claim of structural corruption. During the recount, much of the media coverage revolved around the public’s supposed impatience with the process, fueled by reports of “spontaneous” demonstrations to that effect. Employing strategic freeze-frames of TV news footage, Unprecedented names several paid Republican staffers flown in to stage the demonstrations, thereby manufacturing dissent.

Such methodical scrutiny of various episodes lends credibility to the film’s sweeping arguments, which might otherwise smack too much of paranoid conspiracy theories. One of the most compelling investigations concerns Florida’s use of a Jim Crowe-era law that prohibits convicted felons from voting to purge thousands of mostly black and Hispanic voters from the polling rosters. Historically, such practices were used to exclude minorities — many of whom had been wrongly convicted, post-slavery — from governmental activities. Florida hired a private database firm (DBS Systems) to compile the lists, instructing them to make the parameters “as broad as possible.” Chock full of “false positives” based on name similarity and convictions dated in the future, the felon lists kept thousands of properly registered voters — many of whom traditionally voted Democratic — from voting on Election Day.

Public outrage over the felon lists and voter purges spilled into street protests and congressional hearings, but was under-reported by the mainstream media. Though this development is largely ignored in the main film, it is closely examined in some of the DVD extras. In the featurette, “Media Malfeasance,” filmmakers Perez and Sekler center on the conflation of media with politics. Most of the reporting focused on dangling chads and recounts, downplaying voter purges and connections between the Bush camp and the officials calling the election. The filmmakers argue that such behavior, including the calling, un-calling, and recalling of Florida’s votes on election night, laid the foundation for the Supreme Court’s decision.

Many states have since banned media access to polling stations, thereby obscuring the necessary transparency of the voting process. Other examples of continued abuse include the recently dismissed Republican challenge to 27,000 voters in Florida based on incorrectly addressed mailings and the continuing harassment of voters at polling stations: there have been hundreds of reported incidents of police issuing loitering tickets to voters standing in line at polling stations, running warrant checks on license plates at voter gatherings and the like. Under these conditions, the film suggests, another Florida is not only likely, but probable.

Other featurettes in the “Election Edition” DVD consider voter participation, examine the philosophical stakes of the electoral process, and offer “Critical Perspectives” on the events of 2000. These additional materials underscore the urgency of Unprecedented’s work. Unfortunately, the majority of these documentaries — “The Voter Purge,” “Media Malfeasance,” “Response to a Stolen Election,” “Critical Perspectives,” and “Rise of Corporate Dominance” — are repetitive or too brief, recycling content from the film.

In a time when the virtues of democracy and freedom are touted as moral standards and justification for war, the exposure of U.S. failure in this arena is particularly chilling. Unchecked, the electoral system and power structures that enabled the injustices of the 2000 Presidential Election in Florida will not only influence, but perhaps decide the 2004 Election. Unprecedented is a call to action if ever there was one.