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The National Archives' Roger Bruns: How will history record the 2000 presidential election

November 10, 2000
2 p.m. EST

Roger Bruns Photo(CNN) – Republican Governor George W. Bush stated November 10 that he is moving forward to plan his administration although Florida’s recount of presidential ballots is not official or complete. Vice President Al Gore’s campaign chairman, William Daley, stressed that "the election is not over." The Democrats are considering legal measures to address alleged election irregularities in the state.

Roger Bruns is the deputy executive director of the National Publications and Records Commission at the National Archives. Bruns has written 14 books, including "Almost History: Close Calls, Plan B's and Twists of Fate in America's Past." His work has been profiled in "The Political Insider" and "NCC Washington Update."

Chat Moderator: Thank you for joining us today, Roger Bruns, and welcome.

Roger Bruns: Hello. I am very glad to be here and welcome all of your questions.

Chat Moderator: We are entering unknown territory with this presidential election. How do you think this event will be recorded in history?

"Interesting. I don't think the survival of the Constitution is at stake in this. The decisions being made in Florida are essentially state decisions. The situation will be handled by state authorities, state courts and the people of Florida. I doubt if any kind of federal intervention would be required and trust that the state of Florida will reach a decision as to the composition of their electors."
— Roger Bruns

Roger Bruns: We are certainly at an unbelievable turning point or intersection of American history. My book called "Almost History," which is now out, talks about various times in the country's past in which things could have turned out differently. Times in which twists of fate or close calls made an enormous difference. People have always been fascinated with what could have happened or what might have been.

In the book, "Almost History," we provide actual documents that show that things could have been different, except for the great "what if's" and "if only's." The situation in the election as it is this afternoon falls into that category. One could begin with the facts as they are now and then write all kinds of scenarios that could follow with either man being elected president through any number of possible twists and turns.

This week, we certainly have reached a fork in the road, and that is what this book is all about.

Question from Niki: Will history say that this election was the start of the effort to get rid of the Electoral College?

Roger Bruns: That is an interesting question. Polls have consistently shown through the years that a strong majority of Americans favor the abolition of the Electoral College. But there have been only three cases in American history in which the man who received the most popular votes did not become president.

The most egregious case of this was 1876 with the election between Democrat Samuel Tilden and Republican Rutherford Hayes. I can get into that election later, if you wish, because it involved all kinds of fraud. That election itself is probably the strongest argument to abolish the Electoral College.

Question from Sadie: Mr. Burns, do you not think that this is an excellent forum to test the Constitution and its ability to survive?

Roger Bruns: Interesting. I don't think the survival of the Constitution is at stake in this.


The decisions being made in Florida are essentially state decisions. The situation will be handled by state authorities, state courts and the people of Florida. I doubt if any kind of federal intervention would be required and trust that the state of Florida will reach a decision as to the composition of their electors.

Question from Nuala: Why did the writers of the Constitution develop the Electoral College?

Roger Bruns: Article II of the Constitution talks about each state appointing a number of electors in their state legislatures equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives to which the state is entitled in the Congress. The reason they did that was to make the election a national election and to avoid a situation in which concentrations of voters in certain areas could dominate the election of a president.

As with other parts of the Constitution, it was a compromise between large and small states, those who favored majority control over those who were for states' rights. This is the system they devised. Except for 1876, it has worked fairly well.

Chat Moderator: The media did a flip-flop Tuesday night with Florida being called, twice, and then announcing George W. Bush as the next president, only to later recall the announcement. How does the media's treatment of election night -- and the papers the morning after -- compare with similar blunders in the past?

Roger Bruns: Everyone remembers Harry Truman holding aloft a copy of the Chicago Tribune after the 1948 election, announcing that Thomas Dewey had won. One of the problems in that election was the expectation that had been created by national polling organizations that had announced that Truman was going to be easily defeated. Some of the polling organizations had actually stopped polling a week before the election.

Truman’s political staff itself had continued polling. They realized that some of the states were closing in the last week and that his election in a number of those states was now possible, whereas the polls had called for his defeat in those states. So, when the first returns came in, in 1948, reporters were, I think, affected by their expectations of a Truman defeat. After looking at the early returns, they were more convinced. That led to the press actually putting out newspapers that said Truman had lost.

In the 1876 case, newspapers were also printed claiming that Samuel Tilden had won and Rutherford B. Hayes actually conceded the election. Of course, a few months later, Hayes became president.

Question from ELmariachi: What effect, if any, do you believe this election will have on the third parties, as compared to any previous one before?

Roger Bruns: Well, there is a tremendous irony in this particular election about third parties. I don't recall a case in American history in which an election may turn on the influence of a party that actually received only 3 percent of the national vote and, because of the Florida situation, may have a direct determining affect on the winner.

Obviously, in the case of the Ross Perot candidacy, it can be argued that he had an effect on the outcome, as with a number of other third party candidates throughout the years -- including 1912 and others. But those candidacies received far more of the popular vote than Ralph Nader did in this election.

But Nader's influence in Florida is one more "what if," I suppose, in this election. If he had not been on the ballot in Florida, Gore probably would have won the state.

Question from Yikes: Rutherford Hayes was known as "Your Fraudulency." Will this happen to Bush if he wins?

Chat Moderator: No matter which candidate is officially elected in the end, do the events that are transpiring cast a shadow on the next four years?

Roger Bruns: When Hayes became president in 1876, he had won the election because of a bargain. The Southern Democrats in Congress decided to vote for Hayes if Republicans promised to remove all federal troops from the South, which would mean, of course, a final end to reconstruction. And so the Republicans agreed to this, Hayes became president and newspapers had a field day.

They printed Hayes' picture with the caption "fraud" across his forehead. Throughout his term, some people called him "Old Rutherfraud" and "His Fraudulency" and so, yes, he had a very difficult presidency in that regard.

I think it would be wise for either Bush or Gore to consider some of kind of bipartisan or conciliatory moves, perhaps the inclusion of several members of the opposing party in the Cabinet, to encourage bipartisanship and reconciliation.

Question from Tennoheika: What if Gore concedes but the Electoral College elects him president?

Roger Bruns: The electors are not bound by law to support their candidate, except by state law in some of the states. There have been cases over the years when electors have voted for someone other than who they were pledged to vote for. For example, in 1988, a West Virginia elector voted for Lloyd Benson as president. But these instances have been very isolated in American history.

A very small numbers of electors have ever changed their pledges. They are usually people who are very closely allied with their respective parties and they have been chosen because it is assumed that they will carry out the will of the voters.

Question from Wethepeople: Do you think that this will bring out more voters at the next presidential election?

Roger Bruns: I tend to think that the attention that this election is getting and the numerous stories that have come to light regarding the importance of single votes will probably increase voter turnout.

I have a story in the book that is to that point. It occurred in 1920 and involves American women’s right to vote. It seems amazing today that as late as 1920, women could not vote. It wasn't until 1919 that the Congress passed the 19th Amendment.

The amendment was sent to various states for ratification and the outcome came down to one state, Tennessee. The night before the vote in the Tennessee legislature, each side was predicting that the legislation would fail. And then, that evening, a freshman Republican named Harry Burn, who was the youngest member of the Tennessee legislature and who had planned to vote against women’s suffrage, opened his mail.

In the mail was a letter from his mother. She said, "Dear Harry, don't forget to be a good boy and vote for ratification." Harry changed his vote the next day and the 19th Amendment passed by that one vote. If Tennessee had failed to ratify, the amendment could have been stalled for many years.

So, I suppose if Gore wins, considering the fact he carried the women’s vote, he can thank Harry and his mother.

Chat Moderator: Do you have any final thoughts to share with us today?

Roger Bruns: Well, I think this is an amazing time in our history. There are so many "what if's" and twists of fate involved in today's headlines that if I were doing another book called "Almost History," this would be part of it, certainly.

Those who want to know more about close calls, take a look at "Almost History."

And thanks a lot for letting me be with you today.

Chat Moderator: Thank you for joining us today.

Roger Bruns: Let's all sit back and take in an unbelievable situation in American history during the next few weeks. We were here. And people will look back at this election as a turning point.

Roger Bruns joined the Allpolitics/Book Chat from his home in Virginia. CNN provided a typist for him. The above is an edited transcript of the chat, which took place on Friday, November 10, 2000.

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Presidential race 2000
Election 2000

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CNN's Election 2000
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Almost History, by Roger Burns
Roger Burns' Biography
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