Public Finance and Public Choice

Read this chapter to learn how the government provides goods and services in the economy to alleviate problems of the market system.

4. Choices in the Public Sector

4.1. Case in Point: The Presidential Election of 2000

Public opinion polls on the eve of the election between George W. Bush and Al Gore showed the race to be a toss-up. Ordinarily, one might expect this to produce a large turnout. But barely more than half - 50.7% - of registered voters went to the polls.

The 2000 election provides an illustration of the concept of rational abstention. It also illustrates another point made in the text. If an election is close, the outcome is likely to be determined in the courts.

Florida, with its 25 electoral votes, proved to be the decisive state. The winner of that state's electoral votes would win the presidency. The outcome in that state was not determined until late November, when Florida's Secretary of State, Republican Katherine Harris, declared George Bush the winner by a few hundred votes. Mr. Gore took the case to court. The Florida State Supreme Court ordered a recount.

The recounting process proved to be one of the most bizarre chapters in American political history. Thousands of lawyers descended on the state. Each ballot in key counties was scrutinized in an effort to determine which candidate each voter "intended" to choose. Chads, the small pieces of paper that are removed from a punch-card ballot, turned out to be of crucial importance. "Hanging chads," which occurred when the ballot was not thoroughly punched and which literally remained hanging from the ballot, prevented a ballot from being counted by the state's electric counting machines. The Florida's Supreme Court ruled that the roughly 170,000 ballots that had been discarded by the machines because they were not properly punched had to be re-examined.

As the recounting went on, other controversies arose. Pursuant to Florida law, Ms. Harris had ordered County Clerks to remove ex-felons from their registered voter lists. One clerk, seeing her own name on the list, refused to remove the names. Ms. Harris had come up with a list of 57,700 ex-felons for her "scrub list". The precise number of voters removed is not known. Harper's Magazine columnist Greg Palast charges that 90% of the voters on the scrub list were not, in fact, ex-felons. He notes that they were, however, black - and likely to vote Democratic - 90% of ex-felons who are allowed to vote vote Democratic.

In the end, the case went to the United States Supreme Court. The Court decided, by a single vote, that Ms. Harris's certification of the outcome would stand, and George Bush became the president-elect of the United States.

All elections have stories of irregularities. The 2000 election was certainly no exception. What made it different was that the outcome came down to the votes in a single state. The official tally in Florida had Mr. Bush with 2,912,790 and Mr. Gore with 2,912,253. What was the "real" outcome? No one will ever know.