Bush v. Gore (2000)
The 2000 presidential election between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore, who at the time of the election was completing his second term as vice president of the United States, was decided in Bush's favor by the highly disputed U.S. Supreme Court case Bush v. Gore, on December 12, 2000. On the night of the election, November 7, 2000, several media outlets first predicted that Gore had won, only to switch their projection and name Bush the winner. Much of the uncertainty was based on the fact that Gore appeared to be winning in Florida, which had twenty-five votes in the electoral college. However, as the voting progressed into the evening, Bush steadily closed the gap in Florida, and uncertainty about the outcome in that state, and therefore the outcome of the entire election, lasted late into the night, with most of the media stating that the race was too close to call. The next day, after Bush appeared to have garnered enough votes to win the state, the Florida Division of Elections reported that Bush's margin of victory necessitated a mandatory recount. With results across the country already in, the candidate who won in Florida would become the next president of the United States, regardless of the fact that Gore had won the popular vote (50,999,897 to 50,456,002).
The problem started with the ballots used in several Florida voting districts, and the issue was whether particular votes were properly cast. Florida, like many states, had a variety of ballots and a variety of methods by which people could cast those ballots. For example, Palm Beach County had the infamous “butterfly ballot,” a confusing ballot that listed candidates down both sides of a single column of punch holes, making it relatively easy for voters to punch a hole next to the wrong name. In this traditionally liberal, Democrat-leaning county many voters improbably and likely inadvertently punched the hole next to conservative candidate Pat Buchanan's name rather than that of Gore, who was their likely choice given the voting record of the county. Additionally, a series of ballots had no vote for president, and others had votes for two candidates. Many voters, realizing their mistake, then marked the box corresponding to Gore's name as well, resulting in an over-vote, which had to be disqualified.
Both camps jumped on the issue. On the one hand, Bush's supporters were unsympathetic, claiming that a disqualified vote amounted to tough luck, regardless of any flaws in the ballots. On the other hand, the ballots that included votes for two presidential candidates were a rallying cry for Gore supporters who felt the ballots illustrated a fundamental flaw in election procedures. Complicating the matter for both camps was the fact that, at the time of the election, George W. Bush's brother Jeb Bush was serving as governor in Florida, a fact that gave rise to numerous conspiracy theories suggesting that the entire Florida election was rigged.
Another problem was caused by old voting equipment used in poorer, largely African American voting districts that had traditionally voted for Democrats. This is where the term hanging chad came into common parlance: if a box corresponding to the name of a presidential candidate on the ballot had been perforated by the machine but not completely punched out, resulting in only an indentation, or if the little fragment of paper commonly known as a “chad” was still attached to the ballot, the voting machines would not register the vote. Old voting equipment often failed to punch complete holes because the stylus often did not line up correctly with the printed box the voter needed to perforate in order to register a vote, or the stylus was dull, or the rubber backing on the voting machines where the card was placed had not been properly maintained and had hardened so that the stylus could not properly penetrate the card. In some districts a scanner had been placed inside the polling place, giving voters a chance to verify their votes before leaving, but because of budget constraints scanners were not used in poorer counties. On the day of the election, before the controversy had erupted, voters had complained about some of these voting problems.
Other bizarre events added to the controversy. Exit polls and early results indicated that Gore won Florida, which gave the Democrats the electoral votes necessary to win the election. Various news outlets erroneously reported Gore as the winner even though many of the election booths remained open—counties in the Florida panhandle, including Tallahassee and Pensacola, are in the central time zone, and most of the rest of the state is in the eastern time zone. This meant that many Florida voters still had another hour to vote, even though polls had closed in much of the state. Based on data from exit polls, it is alleged that the early reporting may have swayed voters or discouraged voters from going to the polls. Either way, it could
be argued that the media was influencing the election results by issuing reports based on insufficient information.
At 2:16 a.m. eastern time Fox News announced that Bush had won the election, and four minutes later, other networks followed suit. Then at 3:57 a.m. the networks once again listed Florida as too close to call. Gore had called Bush and conceded the election at 2:30 a.m. When Gore's campaign manager, William Daley, heard that the results were much closer in the latest vote tally and an automatic recount of votes would be necessary under Florida law, he desperately called Gore in order to stop him from giving a concession speech. Gore then called Bush and withdrew his concession.
The initial recount performed by machines lowered Bush's margin of victory from 537 votes to 327. Gore responded by requesting manual recounts in four counties. By law all counties were to certify their returns within seven days of the election. The counties conducting manual recounts stated that they would not be able to meet the deadline. On November 14, the day of the deadline, the Florida Circuit Court ruled that the deadline would remain in effect, but it allowed for the counties to amend their results, giving Secretary of State Katherine Harris final authority. By the end of that day Volusia County was the only county that had completed its manual recount, with Palm Beach, Broward, and Miami-Dade Counties still performing their recounts. Harris determined that none of the counties asking for an extension met her criteria and that she would certify the returns by November 26.
Public sentiment rose to a fury when Republican operatives organized a demonstration on November 19 outside of the Miami-Dade elections office. Spurred by New York Representative John Sweeney, the demonstration turned violent, leaving several people injured. Termed the “Brooks Brothers Riot” owing to the conservative, corporate attire of the protestors, the encounter helped to polarize the nation in the aftermath of the election. A week later, in a highly publicized and anticipated announcement, Harris reported Bush as the winner of Florida's electoral votes.
In the days that followed, Gore and the rest of the Democratic Party insisted that the recount was improperly handled and that the election result was unjust, chiefly because it did not reflect the will of the electorate. Gore had won the popular vote, and in his estimation he had won the state of Florida, too, which meant he also had earned more electoral votes than Bush. Many voters complained about voting procedures, including the fact that results from the electoral college trumped the popular vote and the fact that many miscues in Florida on election day and afterward had deprived Gore of the victory he needed in that state to win the electoral vote.
On December 8 the Florida Supreme Court ruled that all ballots upon which there was no vote for president must be recounted in all sixty-seven Florida counties, and 383 votes for Gore from Miami and Palm Beach County were added to Gore's total, leaving Bush with a lead of 154 votes. On December 9, however, the U.S. Supreme Court suspended the Florida recount. In the wake of the controversies that put into question Bush's original 537-vote lead, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Florida's recounting methods violated the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause. The ruling was made on a 5–4 vote, wherein the four most conservative justices (William Rehnquist, Sandra Day O'Connor, Clarence Thomas, and Antonin Scalia) plus the court's ideologically neutral swing-voter (Anthony Kennedy) constituted the majority concurrence, and the court's liberal members (John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen Breyer) constituted the minority dissent. The recount ordered by the Florida court was devoid of standards because individual counties proceeded under different rules and methods to discern voter intent. With the halt of the recount, the state's twenty-five electoral votes were awarded to Bush and sealed his victory by a final count of 271 to 266 electoral votes.
The U.S. Supreme Court decision alarmed many Americans. What was supposed to be a democratic election had instead been determined by nine Supreme Court justices, all of whom had ideological leanings that, in the eyes of many Americans, could have an effect on how they decided the case. The Supreme Court's decision ensured that many votes remained uncounted in the 2000 election. Indeed, a law professor at Georgetown University, Neal Katyal, wrote in an editorial for the Washington Post: “The Supreme Court has never, in its 200-year history, decided that if ballots cannot be counted with absolute perfection, they cannot be counted at all. … This break with the court's tradition is even more chilling when we consider that the Rehnquist court has been built on the rock of respecting states' rights, not interfering with them.”
The drama did not end with the Supreme Court decision. Gore presided over a joint session of Congress on January 6, 2001, to certify the electoral votes. Twelve members of the Congressional Black Caucus spoke and protested Florida's election results and the certification, but they were ruled out of order because they had no senator who backed them. One District of Columbia member of the electoral college abstained from casting an electoral vote. Gore did not endorse any of the these objections to the final election results, making the sobriquet that he and his running mate, Joseph Lieberman, received from Republicans—“Sore Loserman,” in a replica of their campaign logo—seem unfair and undignified.
Although the controversy surrounding the election did prompt most states to update their voting procedures, including replacing outdated manual voting methods, the decision did not facilitate a restructuring of the electoral process. For many observers, critics, and scholars such reform could have been the one bright spot of the entire debate. Scholars Charles Zelden and Richard Hasen, among others, have suggested that the Supreme Court missed an important opportunity to include language in its ruling that would resolve future disputes by standardizing voter eligibility, ballot designs, voting technology, and recount requirements and timelines. Many of the legal issues remain unresolved; lawsuits originally filed in 2000 continue to cycle through the appellate court system. In 2008 the Emmy Award–winning docudrama Recount attempted to offer some perspective on the court's decision. Although the film attempted to give equal time to both parties, the film was largely viewed as a pro-Gore piece. Regardless of the film's intent, the attention it received proved that the American electorate and its officials had yet to recover from the damage done by the 2000 decision.
Josephine A. McQuail
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