I'm going to step into paranoia-land for a moment. The democratic legitimacy of our government is getting to be seriously compromised.
Now first things first: I'm not saying that Kerry “really” won the 2004 election. I don't have clear evidence of that. To the best of my knowledge, Bush won both the popular vote and the electoral vote.
The problem is, how good is the best of my knowledge?
There's good reason to think that the Florida results were fishy. There's scary evidence that electronic voting machines are as compromised as we have cause to fear. There was more chicanery in Florida. There's the mystery of why election results no longer match exit polls, a problem which some people take pretty seriously. And so on, on and on.
There's an epistemological crisis at work here. How can we know, as individual citizens, that the reported election results are correct?
Now step back to 2000. Bush was legitimately sworn in as President: an orderly, legal, and legitimate political process brought him there. But in terms of democracy, which means the will of the demos — the citizenry — our process failed us. Gore won the popular vote. He would have won a statewide recount in Florida using the “clear intent of the voter” standard, due to clear overvotes. We all know that, by the intended will of the voters, he would have won the initial count of the Florida vote were it not for a fluke of bad ballot design. In the process of sorting this stuff out, Bush took the Presidency by way of an outrageously nonsensical Supreme Court decision.
There's an ontological crisis there. Who is the “real” winner of the 2000 election?
Understand, I accept the results of both elections. Obviously, both elections were close, and given the flaws in the mechanics of the electoral process it's hard to confidently identify a clear winner within that margin. I don't see much to be gained from challenging the results at this point. With the current system in place and the genuinely split electorate, that way lies madness. How could any result from a challenge produce a winner who holds any better legitimacy in the eyes of the American people?
But on a deeper level, long-term, we cannot be making these evaluations with the caveat “given the flaws in the mechanics of the electoral process.” That breeds paranoia and distrust of the legitimacy of the electoral process as a whole. We need reform to eliminate the problems of both elections, and we're not getting it. The lack of reform, the lack of discussion, the lack of investigation — these are more corrosive than the electoral irregularities themselves.
If no one trustworthy is doing the detective-work, then citizens become susceptable not only to reasonable doubts, but also to bogus questions about the legitimacy of our elections. Which then makes bogus arguments proliferate, because they're easy to make. Which can create an environment in which a significant portion of the population simply rejects the legitimacy of our elections. We're already starting to see a lot of doubt, and a little bit of outright rejection of electoral results, out here on the left.
If that spreads, then there are two scary results. First, the legitimacy of the sitting government comes into question, because that legitimacy rests on the legitimacy of the elections that define it. Second, the legitimacy of popular election as a mechanism of democracy becomes questionable. If we cannot trust that elections work, then how do we define democracy? Do we believe in democracy at all at that point?