Sorry Anniversary: Florida's 2000 Election Debacle
Around the State
Those names and phrases are recalled with a shudder by Americans in all 50 states, but on Nov. 7, 2000 -- Election Day -- nearly everyone in the United States was blissfully ignorant of them.
Then the presidential race between Republican Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Democratic Vice President Al Gore came down to the microscopically close Florida vote. Whoever won the state would take its 25 electoral votes and the presidency.
The close race was called by television networks for Gore, only to be called later for Bush. Gore called Bush to concede, only to retract it. There were problems in Palm Beach County, where the butterfly ballot, designed by Supervisor of Elections Theresa LaPore, confused some voters. There was an unusually large number of votes for Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan in heavily Democratic Palm Beach County.
Although the butterfly ballots -- which had lists of candidates on each side of the page and required voters to punch through a mark in the middle to signify their vote, thus creating hanging and dimpled chads -- were confusing to some, other Palm Beach voters remain perplexed to this day as to how anyone could get it wrong.
"You just pressed down on your candidate. We had voted on those (ballots) previously. I don't understand how it ever became an issue," said John Walker, a Palm Beach resident who voted in the 2000 election.
The ensuing legal battles meant the courts would eventually decide one of the closest presidential elections in the nation’s history. There would be recounts, first in certain counties, then statewide. But what should count as a vote? Hanging chads? Dimpled chads? Should vote counters consider a voter’s “intent”?
Both campaigns fought vehemently, not only in court but in public opinion and the media, complaining of the unfair advantages of the other. The Democratic Palm Beach County Commissioners would exaggerate Gore votes, Bush’s campaign contended. The highly partisan Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris would pull the strings for Gov. Jeb Bush’s brother, the Gore campaign countered. When the networks called Florida early for Gore, disenchanted Republicans in the Panhandle’s central time zone stayed home instead of going to the polls, the Bush campaign rejoined.
Finally, a Florida Supreme Court decision suggesting another recount was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, handing the presidency to Bush, who won Florida by 537 votes in the official count.
Before the decision, however, partisans from both sides were sufficiently outraged, conducting massive protests. The rest of the country became righteously exasperated with Florida and its ability to keep an entire nation in suspense.
Floridians now look back on the spectacle of 10 years ago and wince.
"In a manner of speaking it was embarassing. It was embarassing because it was based on people not knowing how to vote," Walker said.
Longtime Palm Beach County Commissioner Burt Aaronson was in the middle of the storm in 2000. He thinks the country would look much different if Gore had won the election, and is chagrined at the notorious reputation Palm Beach County has nationwide.
“We got somewhat of a bad rap. The ballot was absolutely the cause of it, there’s no doubt about that.
“We became in some ways the laughingstock of America. No matter what election comes up, every little problem and every little glitch gets noticed by the public and by the press,” Aaronson said.
The election debacle left many observers on both sides wondering if the democratic system in the U.S. was broken. Aaronson, however, thinks it led to some needed changes -- clearer voting procedures and ballots, electronic voting machines and mandatory paper trails to more accurately record and count each vote.
But others aren't convinced the 2000 election and the spectacle that followed had a happy ending or even a moral to the story.
"I'm not sure if anything good did come out of it," Walker said.
Reach Gray Rohrer at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (850) 727-0859.