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Politics

The tightest race: looking back at Florida’s 2000 election recount

From butterfly ballots, hanging chads and the Brooks Bros protest, November 2000 was the closest race in Florida’s history. Could it happen again?
4 Nov 2016 – 9:25 AM EDT

Nov 8 is a date that brings back bad memories, especially for Florida voters and Democrats nationwide.

It was 16 years ago that voters woke up to find that a day after they went to the polls there was still no result. In fact, the race was so close there would have to be a recount.

That morning my editor at the St. Petersburg Times phoned me at home to tell me there appeared to be a problem in Palm Beach County. Voters were complaining about problems with hard-to-read ballots, and the voting machines were having a hard time reading them too.

I spent the next two weeks driving up and down I-95 between Miami and Palm Beach, watching officials sift through ballots, sometimes holding them up to magnifying glasses trying to detect if a legitimate vote had been cast.

The official results showed the Republican candidate George W. Bush leading Democrat Al Gore by 1,784 votes, within a 1 percent margin that automatically triggered a recount. Florida's 25 Electoral College votes (that number has risen to 29 in 2016) would decide the presidency as Gore had won 262 electoral votes and Bush had 246 electoral votes, and 270 votes are needed to win the presidency.

I arrived at the Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections office to find a tumult outside. It was baffling at first. I forget exactly when I first heard those inglorious words, “butterfly ballots” and “hanging chads,” ever since engraved in the memories of all Floridians, if not the entire world.

Before that moment no one had paid any attention to Palm Beach County’s split page ballot, and how it might confuse voters, especially older ones who had a hard time finding the right punch hole. As many as 2,000 would end up accidentally voting for Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan, rather than Democrat Al Gore (see photo).

Officials explained the ballot design was in fact a well-intentioned move by the Palm Beach County supervisor who thought it would make the crowded ballot - there were 10 presidential candidates - easier for seniors to read.


Nor did anyone consider that a ballot card pressed hard enough might not count. Ones that did not entirely punch out the little paper square – or “chad” – became known as “hanging chads,” with variations of being left attached by one, two or three corners. These became known as "hanging door," "swinging door" and "tri-chad" ballots. Others, which only bore a mark or an impression but were not left hanging, were dubbed “dimpled" or "pregnant" and tossed out.

In total 29,000 ballots were thrown out — about 4 percent of the county's votes.

Outside, small groups of protesters, mostly Al Gore supporters, carried placards and shouted slogans. Some wore T-shirts with a mock Florida ballot on the chest. The shirts featured a maze of lines leading to each candidate and the caption: "Follow the arrow and push the appropriate dot."


The county's predominantly Jewish and African-American precincts - Democratic strongholds - were the ones hardest hit. Jewish and black leaders were outraged, reminding anyone who would listen of the county's racial history.

Both the African-American and the Jewish communities had to overcome racial prejudice. In the 1960s Boca Raton was an unofficial "restricted city," where Jews were kept out of the property market and local golf clubs.


Sitting on a tree stump outside McCray's, a family-owned barbecue takeout, Rev. Herman McCray showed me a 1956 ordinance banning members of "the Negro race" from the beaches used by "members of the White race."

In Miami, the machine recount went smoothly for the first few days, turning up only a handful of additional votes for Gore. But when the canvassing board announced a hand recount of 1 percent of the ballots, Miami Republicans were furious.

Pretty soon buses started to arrive from Texas and Georgia with party activists. They were pumped up. And well dressed. As veteran local observer Dan Ricker called it, both sides came to see it as “A fight against the evil empire.”

Back then Miami was still considered an alien planet by some of my colleagues at the St. Petersburg Times. I lived in Miami but my title was Latin America Correspondent. It made perfect sense, they joked, as Miami was, after all, a foreign country.


By the time the sample recount was over on Nov. 15 it registered only a six-vote change for Gore, and the canvassing board voted 2-1 against doing a countywide recount. Republicans were jubilant. Democrats appealed, arguing that six votes in 1 percent of the precincts could mean as many as 600 countywide, more than enough to alter the outcome of the election along with new votes for Gore being found in Palm Beach and Broward counties.

On Nov. 17, the canvassing board agreed, and the recount was relaunched. But valuable days had been lost.

When Republicans appealed to the Florida Supreme Court it ruled the recount could continue, but a deadline was set for Nov. 26, at 5 p.m. Thanksgiving was only 24 hours away and the ruling in effect gave only two working days to count 654,000 ballots.

By the night of Nov. 21, with 139 of the 614 precincts counted, Gore had gained 157 votes.

Outside Miami's downtown government center GOP reinforcements were arriving from Bush headquarters in Austin, Texas, and campaign staff from other states armed with cell phones and walkie-talkies. There was even a mobile GOP war room -- a large mobile home adorned with "Sore-Loserman" posters, mocking Gore and his running mate, Senator Joe Lieberman.

Cuban radio stations in Miami warned listeners that Democrats were poised to steal the election. Listeners were told that by opting not to do a full manual recount, their heavily Republican districts in Little Havana and Hialeah wouldn't be included.

An angry crowd gathered outside the government building. Corrupt Democrats were "trying to hijack this election," the crowd was told by New York Republican congressman John Sweeney. He instructed his team of GOP activists to "Shut it down."

They crammed into elevators to the 19th floor tabulation room, chanting "fraud, fraud, fraud." They pounded on the doors and windows, shoved security guards aside and accused one Democratic Party recount observer of trying to steal ballots.

But in the end they got their way. Clearly in shock, the canvassing board members backed down and voted to call off the recount.

Officials denied they had been scared into submission, arguing the decision was taken because they ran out of time to count all the ballots.

County spokesman Mayco Villafana described the scene as "a somewhat intimidating and violent display." But he denied it affected the board's decision.

The legal arguments would continue all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In the end Bush was declared the winner by 537 votes.


Since then, studies have shown that Gore could have won the vote, but only if all the questionable ballots had been counted. There remains enormous disagreement about what standard should have been used to verify the ballots.

As for whether it could happen again? Of course it's extremely unlikely.

But subsequent elections in 2004, 2008, and 2012 have shown Nov. 2000 was not entirely an aberration.

If you add up all the people who have voted for president in Florida in the last four elections from 2000 to 2012, there were 15,086,968 Republicans and 15,015,920 Democrats, according to Steven Schale, a veteran Florida consultant for the Democratic Party.

That’s a difference of only 71,048 votes out of more than 31 million ballots, or a margin 0.24 percent.

“Under Florida law, we’d be looking at a lengthy recount. That’s how close we are,” Schale jokes.

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