A "Y2K" election in 2020? Seriously

6 reasons why this election is like the Y2K exercise

Published October 31, 2020 8:00PM (EDT)

U.S. President Donald Trump | Judge Robert Rosenberg of the Broward County Canvassing Board uses a magnifying glass to examine a dimpled chad on a punch card ballot November 24, 2000 during a vote recount in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. (Getty Images/Salon)
U.S. President Donald Trump | Judge Robert Rosenberg of the Broward County Canvassing Board uses a magnifying glass to examine a dimpled chad on a punch card ballot November 24, 2000 during a vote recount in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. (Getty Images/Salon)

This article originally appeared on The Globalist.

Remember the late 1990s with those doomsday predictions that the modern world, as we had come to know and appreciate it, would come to a sudden halt because of the Y2K bug? 

Apocalypse now

And that computers, those marvels of technology, would basically no longer function — all because of a programming convenience put into the coding convention in the early days of computing?

In case you are too young to remember, some of your parents ended up taking a bunch of cash out of the bank, just in case. I did, too. After all, who could be certain that the ATMs would work on, or after, January 1, 2000?

The Y2K menace

The Y2K menace was on the loose. And it was assigned the power of the (technological) apocalypse. I remember attending a national philanthropy conference, a huge auditorium filled with curious, credulous, dubious and in-between people. We all wanted to hear what might await us at the advent of the new millennium. 

Pressing questions were swirling around our heads: Could we still function as professionals? 

Would our PCs and laptops go on strike? Would airplanes fall out of the sky because of computer malfunctions? Would there still be food deliveries at supermarkets, given that many logistics were computer-driven? And what about government service systems, such as Social Security payments?

Leaving the 1900's

Y2K was essentially about that "19" (before whatever the current year was) having been left out as computer programming took off like lightning in the 1960's. Apparently, no one had had the foresight, time or space to deal with that presumable detail. 

But then, Ta-Dah: Not much out of the ordinary happened on January 1, 2000.

This is not to make fun of the Y2K phenomenon. It was real and the problem that had to be resolved was real as well. 

In hindsight, we can celebrate the willingness and determination shown by many to act on the potential threat. The first credible warnings had come around 1971 when computer scientist Robert Bemer called attention to the dangers.

How to deal with a mega challenge

So what actually happened? Hundreds of thousands — an untold number — of programmers set about the wearisome task of fixing code in all manner of computer systems, whether on their own, or as employees of companies or government entities. 

Effective leadership mattered, too. In the United States, Bill Clinton's Administration even put in place a Y2K "czar."

Speaking of airplanes falling out of the air — President Clinton's Y2K "czar" John Koskinen even flew in an airplane as he entered the 21st century — to show doubters that all would be well.

Assessing the response

History has both criticized and praised the Y2K response. As to the critical view, what was all the hoopla about? While most accounts agree it was time and money well spent, the doubters are still vocal. 

That's the problem with prevention. The public doesn't worry about what didn't happen. And it's hard to prove that what did not occur might have occurred. (The problem with successfully combatting COVID 19 is eerily similar). 

The presumed apocalypse turned into a challenge ultimately well-handled by an international effort. Even in those countries that did nothing to prepare for it — or had no resources to devote to it — the sky did not fall. Pretty much everyone felt vindicated.

A business opportunity

Was it overdone? Was it too expensive? The private and public sectors globally spent between $300 and $500 billion fixing the assumed problem. 

That brings up the praise side. What was the alternative to undertaking an all-out, all-hands-on-deck effort to resolve the problem? 

Who can say that without a sense of alarmism we would have succeeded? Who wanted to take responsibility for that? More defensively, who wanted to take the blame if things had not worked out?

In short: What could be done was done. Then everyone held their breaths. And it worked. All was OK.

Is that perhaps what we can expect around November 3rd? 

Y2K and November 3rd, 2020: Déjà vu ?

Don't get me wrong: I am as nervous as anyone else about the outcome of this presidential election. U.S. history has recorded many wonderful experiences with democracy, beginning with the founders' debates. 

But the history of U.S. democracy also indubitably has its dark sides. Currently, we are experiencing how fragile democracy can be.

That experience, however, is not limited to the past four years. Look at what Franklin Delano Roosevelt faced: Father Coughlin and Huey Long. Hard to believe now that, for all the progress we have made as a culture and as a civilization, we are dangerously back to the 1930s. 

Where Trump is different

Nevertheless, having a President at the helm of the nation, who is clearly unhinged, as well as highly incompetent, and always has been, is a new experience. He is truly our "crazy uncle."

So, like the anti-Y2K programmers just over two decades ago, Americans are being called upon to do their part — large and small. 

Individuals, families, groups and organizations are kicking in to tackle the current major "bug" that threatens American civilization — never mind modernity.

6 reasons why this election is like the Y2K exercise

This election will be a Y2K one because:

1. Americans are voting early as never before. As of October 20th, 2020, more than 35% of the total number of eligible voters have already voted and it is estimated that a total of 150 million might do so before Election Day on November 3rd. 

Estimates are that 235 million Americans are eligible to vote. If those estimates were to hold, 64% of eligible voters would have done so early. 

This would break all total voter participation rates since the early 20th century (before women were eligible to vote). 

Those voters standing hours in line are like the Y2K programmers of yore, patiently and anonymously doing their part. It is crucial to know that each vote counts. 

How are minorities voting?

2. It is especially important to see how minorities are voting — as if their rights depended on the outcome of this election. They do. 

Stacy Abrams' efforts, with her "Fair Fight" organization, are making a difference in Georgia. And Texans are voting in all their under-appreciated diversity.

3. Women are having a critical voice in voting. The suburban white women who were rather inexplicably drawn to Trump in 2016 have largely abandoned him. 

Beyond the polling data, anecdotal evidence suggests that many women whose husbands and other family members will once again be voting for Trump are using the secrecy of the ballot box to save the world they want to live in. 

Women for the most part are not egotistical, and they are not stupid. Above all, they care about the world and the future, not least because of their children and future generations. 

We might, in fact, see the opposite of 2016 when there was an abundance of secret Trump voters.

What about right-wing uprisings?

4. What about the fear of mass right-wing uprisings on November 4th? Law enforcement throughout the United States is working overtime to protect against that menace.

The example of Michigan shows just that. A plot to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer and others in the state administration was uncovered and addressed by every level of law enforcement in the state and spearheaded by the FBI. That level of cooperation did not go unnoticed. 

5. Will the U.S. Postal Service work? Again, experience suggests that there are many postal service employees with a great sense of professional pride and a spirit of civic duty who will be working overtime, whether they are paid or not, to be sure ballots are received. 

Yes, for all of the Republicans' steady efforts to hollow out the government sector, there is still pride in service to the U.S. government and its people. 

The COVID 19 dimension

6. Voting Americans face the threat of COVID 19 as they go to the polls. But they see that — unlike President Clinton in tackling Y2K — their leader has failed them. 

They look to the experts — as did people prior to 2000 — and see Dr. Anthony Fauci, now taking undue abuse from the sitting President, but focusing his message on his patients, that is, the entire U.S. population. 

That Fauci's approval rating far outpaces the President's says it all. 


As in the years preceding 2000, when the challenge was not more Trump, but Y2K, Americans at every level are doing their part.

Keep calm and carry on.

This article is republished from The Globalist: On a daily basis, we rethink globalization and how the world really hangs together.  Thought-provoking cross-country comparisons and insights from contributors from all continents. Exploring what unites and what divides us in politics and culture. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.  And sign up for our highlights email here.

By Terri Langston

MORE FROM Terri Langston

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2020 Election Donald Trump Politics The Globalist Y2k