The recounts and cries of fraud by President Donald Trump have many Americans recalling the controversial Florida election that was decided 20 years ago by the US Supreme Court.
In that case it was Democrat Al Gore who demanded a Florida recount after the initial result showed him trailing to George W. Bush by only 537 votes out of six million cast.
The 2000 dispute didn’t lack for passion in a country already polarized by issues of race and party politics, and there were some angry scenes - and Republican cries of fraud - at South Florida vote counting offices.
But back then, there was far greater uncertainty over who had really won the election, with media organizations even retracting their projections of a winner.
But that's about where the similarities end. For one thing, the dispute centered solely on one state – Florida – where there was indeed huge and legitimate confusion over the results. In 2020, Trump claims he won, but the "rigged" election was stolen from him.
He and his campaign are now pressing outlandish claims of illegal voting and other alleged irregularities in several states, with hundreds of thousands of votes for him supposedly being deleted or switched to Biden.
But his campaign has so far produced little or no evidence and the courts have rejected their legal challenges.
By comparision, Gore made no such claims in 2000 and gracefully conceded in the end, albeit after 36 days of high tension.
On top of that, the margin in Florida was much narrower than the daunting odds Trump faces of reversing Biden’s various state leads, collectively totaling around 46,000 in Arizona, Wisconsin and Georgia. Trump’s closest margin is 11,000 in Arizona, but he would need to overtake Biden in at least three states to win the election.
The allegations in Florida in 2000 mostly did not involve fraud, rather a poorly designed voting system that resulted in hard to read ballot papers.
“In 2000, it was a totally different accusation. It was faulty ballot design that caused the problem,” said John Lantigua, a former reporter who covered the election and now works for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
There were suspicions of political influence, especially because the Governor of Florida at the time was Bush’s brother, Jeb Bush. Democrats also complained about decades of voter suppression tactics, a purge of voter lists that had disproportionately affected African-American voters, as well as “undemocratic” Republican efforts not to allow all votes to count.
The Nov. 7, 2000 election was initially called early by NBC for Gore, then the vice president to outgoing two-term President Bill Clinton, shortly before 8 p.m. east coast time. Other networks followed suit, but by 10 p.m. the retractions started. Shortly after 2 a.m. Nov. 8, Fox News called Bush the winner.
Gore called Bush to concede around 2:30 a.m., but then called again about an hour later to walk it back.
The initial Florida count put Bush ahead by a razor-thin 537 votes out of about 6 million cast. A state-mandated, machine recount trimmed that lead to just 327 as armies of lawyers on both sides began mounting court challenges in various counties.
The recount drama would drag on for 36 days.
Busloads of Republican “activists” from around the country descended on South Florida, to stop the recount in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach, where the ballot problems were worst. Scuffles broke out in Miami when scores of angry Republicans broke into the Miami-Dade County vote counting office demanding to observe the count.
Among those orchestrating the crowds was Trump’s ally, Roger Stone, the conservative political consultant.
In court papers, Democrats accused Republicans of "a deliberate campaign of delay and intimidation" of Miami's election officials, calling the scene a “near-riot.” Billy Corben, director of a recently released HBO documentary about the 2000 election, titled 537 Votes, recalls the crowd chanting “Voter fraud.”
“It was the same tactic as today. They saw their national vote slipping way, so they tried to stop the vote count, said Corben, who is an outspoken critic of Trump and the Republican party.
Republicans pointed to Democratic protests led by the Rev Jesse Jackson in Palm Beach County on behalf of Gore, calling for an investigation into the problematic ballots, or a "re-vote".
In the middle of it all, Bush’s running mate, Dick Cheney, was rushed to hospital with a mild heart attack.
Hanging "chads" and "pregnant" ballots
The recount centered on incompletely punched ballots that had election inspectors using magnifying glasses to examine holes with “hanging chads,” the tiny rectangle of paper left hanging to the ballots where voters had not pressed hard enough to mark their vote.
Election officials were left trying to evaluate if it made a difference if the chad was hanging from one, two or three corners. There were also “pregnant” or “dimpled” chads where the paper was still intact and the voters had failed to press hard enough and merely left a mark where they pressed the ballot. Those were ruled as invalid.
“People were sitting there arguing over whether these little bits of paper that were hanging by a thread should be counted as votes,” said Lantigua.
Palm Beach County had a slightly different problem involved a ballot that folded out across two facing pages, like butterfly wings, with the boxes for voter preference confusingly placed close to each other next to the fold.
The Palm Beach Post newspaper calculated that Gore lost 6,600 votes in Palm Beach County alone because of the butterfly ballot confusion, more than ten times Bush’s margin of victory.
The Florida Supreme Court voted 4-3 on Dec. 8 to order a statewide, manual recount of about 45,000 “undervotes” that didn’t clearly show a presidential pick. That reduced Bush’s lead to a mere 154 votes.
But, when Republicans filed an appeal with the US Supreme Court, the high court ordered a halt to the recounts and heard arguments on Dec. 11. The next, the Supreme Court concluded that the votes couldn’t be fairly recounted in time to meet the state's Dec 18 deadline to certify the results. In a 5-4 order, the Supreme Court overturned the Florida court’s ruling.
That meant Florida’s 25 electoral votes went to Bush, bringing his total to 27, one more than is needed to capture the White House.
In one other legal similarity, two of the justices who decided the case are still members of the Supreme Court, conservative Justice Clarence Thomas and liberal Justice Stephen Breyer. Three other current justices — Chief Justice John Roberts and two Trump appointees, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett — took part in the litigation, all of them on the winning side, and now help comprise the high court’s 6-3 conservative majority.
By way of post-mortem, a vote-by-vote review of 175,000 disputed ballots that were not counted in the 2000 in Florida by a media consortium, found that Bush would have narrowly prevailed by between 225 to 493 votes in the partial recounts sought by Gore. It also found that Gore might have reversed the outcome, by the tiniest of margins - between 42 and 171 votes - if he had sought and won a complete statewide recount.