On November 8, 2000, Americans woke to the unusual news that the winner of the previous days’ presidential election still could not be determined. Al Gore had won the popular vote, but in the United States this did not matter since election outcomes are determined by the archaic electoral college system.
It all came down to a photo finish in Florida, where Texas governor George W. Bush was leading Vice President Al Gore by a mere 1,784 votes, a 0.03 percent lead. Florida law mandates a machine recount for any lead of less than 0.50 percent. Some counties set about recounting votes but others did not. This was the first major impropriety of the election.
After the machine recount, Bush still led the tally, but only by 357 votes. Thousands of ballots, however, did not register any vote, mostly due to malfunctioning voting machines or confusing ballot designs. A shocking 175,000 ballots remained unread, 175,000 people whose votes did not count.
Also not counted were the thousands of black voters intentionally excluded from state electoral rolls. While running for governor in 1994, Jeb Bush, brother of the man who would soon be president, was asked what he would do for black people if elected to the state’s highest office. “Probably nothing,” he infamously replied.
It was worse than that. Bush responded to a massive black voter registration drive by strengthening a Confederate-era law banning anyone ever convicted of a felony from ever voting again, even decades after they’d paid their debt to society. Bush’s secretary of state Katherine Harris hired a private firm, Data Base Technologies, to compile a list of all the state’s ineligible voters. More than half the names on the list were black. This worked decidedly in Republicans’ favor since blacks vote overwhelmingly—90 percent or more—Democrat.
Emmett Mitchell, assistant general counsel in the state elections office, ordered Data Base Technologies to make the no-vote list as lengthy as possible by not matching and verifying names on the list to names of actual felons. Dates of birth, middle names, ‘junior’ and ‘senior’ suffixes, even spellings were intentionally ignored in a deliberate effort to disenfranchise as many blacks, and by extension Democratic voters, as possible. There were many conviction dates on the list that were in the future. As a result, orders were given to delete 4,000 of these erroneous dates.
Marlene Thorogood, a project manager at Data Base Technologies, caught these irregularities and notified Mitchell, who explained that “we want to capture more names that possibly aren’t matches.”
“Programming in this fashion may supply you with false positives,” warned Thorogood, to no avail.
Later, Data Base Technologies vice president George Bruder testified before the US Commission on Civil Rights that Mitchell indeed wanted to the list to be “broad and encompassing” despite the high likelihood that many Floridians would be wrongly disenfranchised. People falsely listed on the no-vote registry were presumed guilty until they proved their innocence and in many counties officials never even sent letters to notify listees that they couldn’t vote. They would not find out until it was too late.
At least 15 percent of the thousands of names on the list were there by mistake. George W. Bush would “win” the 2000 election by just 537 votes. Those wrongly disenfranchised ex-felons would have undoubtedly swung the election to Al Gore.
There was more. Thousands of ex-felons from other states who had their voting rights restored after paying their debt to society were again stripped of their vote when they moved to Florida. These ex-offenders had to ask Jeb Bush for permission to vote. It was highly unlikely that the Republican governor who is also the brother of the Republican candidate for President would grant ex-felons their right to vote when it was almost certain that they would vote Democrat. Nealy 3,000 potential voters were disenfranchised this way. Remember, Bush won by 537 votes.
Back to the recount and Florida secretary of state Katherine Harris, the chief elections official in a state governed by the brother of the man who, if he collected enough votes, would become president of the United States. Not only was Harris in charge of the recount, she was also a Republican and co-chair of George W. Bush’s election campaign. The fate of the presidency rested in the hands of a woman who was a leading cheerleader for one of the candidates in dispute. The Democrats never had a chance.
When it was determined that voter intention could be discerned by manually inspecting each ballot, the Democrats pressed for a hand recount. “What is at stake is the integrity of our democracy,” Al Gore explained. But instead of requesting a recount of all 175,000 unread ballots, Gore made a political calculation and only asked for ballots in four heavily Democratic counties to be re-examined. This would prove to be a fatal mistake.
As the recount unfolded with dramatics over dimpled, pregnant and hanging chads, butterfly and caterpillar ballots, write-in votes, overcounts, undercounts, and a bewildering barrage of strange new terms, the Republicans launched a campaign of misinformation in an attempt to discredit the recount procedure. They also sued in federal court.
Meanwhile, Katherine Harris announced that there would be no extension of the deadline to certify the statewide results of the election, which was set at November 17, 2000. A Democratic request for such an extension was denied and Harris eventually ordered Florida counties to halt their recounts. The Democrats appealed to the Florida Supreme Court, which sided with them and ordered Harris to delay certification pending its ruling. The recount saga continued.
There was yet another major impropriety. Under Florida law, absentee ballots from overseas Americans—many of them on the hundreds of overseas US military bases—must be signed, dated and postmarked on or before election day in order to be valid. Democrats wanted to follow the law and disqualify any absentee ballots that did not meet these requirements. But Republicans appealed to America’s reverence for its troops and vilified Democrats for insisting upon following the law. As a result, canvassing boards counted thousands of illegal votes, 630 of which were included in the official Florida results as certified by Katherine Harris. Troops tend to vote Republican.
The Florida Supreme Court handed Democrats a minor victory when it delayed the certification deadline to November 26, 2000. The Republicans appealed to the United States Supreme Court. Angry mobs of political operatives, mostly Republican Congressional staffers, were flown into Florida to harass and intimidate officials who were still trying their best to recount all the contested ballots before the November 26th deadline. But on that day, Harris declared Bush the winner of the election even though some counties hadn’t finished their recounts.
Not so fast, the Florida Supreme Court said, and ordered another recount. It began on November 29th, 2000. That’s when the United States Supreme Court stepped in and handed down an emergency stay to stop the Florida recount. Seventy-five years of Florida law in which voter intent trumped technicalities was ignored.
The great impropriety of the stolen election occurred within the walls of the nation’s highest court. In a 5-4 ruling in Bush v. Gore, the Supreme Court handed the disputed 2000 election to George W. Bush. The justices also declared that their ruling applied only to the case at hand. To do otherwise would have invalidated countless other elections all across the nation. It was the first and only time in the 211-year history of the Supreme Court that a ruling applied only to the case at hand.
Two of the five justices who voted in favor of Bush had personal and professional connections with the Bush family, while another had a stated interest in a Republican victory. Justice Antonin Scalia’s son Eugene Scalia was a lawyer at a firm that represented George W. Bush in the recount. He was rewarded by President Bush with a high-level legal position in the Labor Department. Justice Clarence Thomas’ wife Virginia Lamp Thomas worked reviewing resumes for potential Bush appointees. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wanted to retire from the Court but said she would not do so until a Republican President named her successor.
Said Justice John Paul Stevens in his dissenting opinion: “Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year’s presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the Nation’s confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law.”
A spent yet stoic Al Gore finally conceded defeat on December 13, 2000.
Despite what many observers called a “stolen election” and even a “bloodless coup,” no one seemed to really care. No angry crowds took to the streets. Instead, Americans took to their couches to watch Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. They took out second mortgages on their homes and took the cash to pile into the peaking NASDAQ. Life was good in 2000, maybe better than it had ever been. Historians may one day look back on the turn of the millennium as the high point of American civilization. If they do, the stolen election of 2000 may go down as one of the seminal events marking the beginning of the end.