01/15/2009 09:09 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Bush's Legacy: A Flawed Election

The tragic course of George W. Bush's presidency began with what might have well been one of the great accidents in American history -- his flawed election. It is difficult to find a more dramatic example of why voting matters.

The Bush team learned how to cut corners in the 2000 election, avoiding a final recount of Florida's challenged ballots by going to the United States Supreme Court to stop it. In many ways that experience produced an attitude that any obstacle, even the Constitution itself, can be circumvented with the right set of machinations.

Bush won the Electoral College in 2000 thanks to winning a contested fight against Democratic nominee Al Gore in Florida when the Supreme Court stepped in to stop a recount ordered by state courts. That froze in place the results that gave Bush a 537-vote margin out of six million that were cast.

There were 175,000 Florida ballots that year that could not be counted by machines for various reasons. They had to be hand counted to determine what the voters intended.

One lesson of the Florida 2000 experience is that it is not enough for voters to show up at the polls. You must be extremely careful to properly cast your ballot no matter how confusing it might be.

Another lesson of the Florida recount is that the actual loser might have taken office. We might not ever know for sure, or will we? Florida officials decided to keep the famous ballots for posterity despite an effort by then-Gov. Jeb Bush -- the president's brother -- to destroy them. They can still be counted until courts allow them to be thrown away.

A consortium of news organizations, including national newspapers and television networks, spent months after the 2000 debacle reviewing contested ballots in an effort to find out who actually won. Once the study was completed, the organizations reached different conclusions.

Some reported that Bush would have won anyway. Others were not sure. It all depended on what standard is applied for judging a voter's intention.

One of the most troubling issues was so-called overvotes -- where it appeared that more than one candidate had been chosen. The cause of the confusion was mostly due to poorly designed ballots.

Gore would have been declared the winner under statewide rules that Florida later developed for evaluating questionable ballots. That was the conclusion of The Orlando Sentinel, one of the participants in the consortium study. But those rules were not in effect in 2000 when the standards varied from county to county, so it cannot be said for sure that Bush would have lost if the Supreme Court had allowed a statewide recount.

The bottom line is that more Florida voters tried to vote for Gore than voted for Bush. There is a real chance that Bush should never have become president.

Craig blogs daily at CQ"s Trail Mix

Also on Trail Mix: