Florida election recount

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The Florida election recount of 2000 was a period of vote re-counting that occurred following the unclear results of the 2000 United States presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore, specifically the Florida results. The Florida vote was ultimately settled in favor of George W. Bush, by a margin of only 537 votes out of almost 6 million cast, when the U.S. Supreme Court, with its final ruling on Bush v. Gore, stopped a recount that had been proposed by the Florida Supreme Court. The outcome resulted in Bush gaining a majority of votes in the Electoral College, winning the overall presidential election.[1]


The controversy began on election night, when the national television networks, using information provided to them by the Voter News Service, an organization formed by the Associated Press to help determine the outcome of the election through early result tallies and exit polling, first called Florida for Gore in the hour after polls closed in the eastern peninsula (which is in the Eastern time zone) but before they had closed in the heavily Republican counties of the western panhandle (which is in the Central time zone). Once the polls had closed in the panhandle, the networks retracted their call for Gore, calling the state for Bush; they then retracted that call as well, finally indicating the state was "too close to call".[2] Gore made a concession phone call to Bush the night of the election, then retracted it after learning just how close the election was.[3] Bush won the election-night vote count in Florida by 1,784 votes. Florida state law provided for an automatic recount due to the small margins. Once it became clear that Florida would decide the winner of the presidential election, the media focused on the Florida recount.


Palm Beach County recount attracted protestors and media.
File:Butterfly large.jpg
"Butterfly ballot"

The Florida election had been closely scrutinized since the election. After the election results were announced, charges were raised that some irregularities favored Bush. Among these was the Palm Beach "butterfly ballot," which some pundits claimed produced an "unexpectedly" large number of votes for third-party candidate Patrick Buchanan. Conservative opinion commentators countered that the same ballot was successfully used in the 1996 election with no post-election protests.[4] Progressive commentators also claimed that there was a purge from the Florida voting rolls of over 54,000 citizens identified as felons, of whom 54% were African-American, and that the majority of these were not felons and should have been eligible to vote under Florida law.[5] (The presumption was that had they been able to express themselves at the polls, their likely choice would have been the Democratic candidate.[6]) Additionally, there were charges that there were many more "overvotes" than usual, especially in predominantly African-American precincts in Duval county (Jacksonville), where some 27,000 ballots showed two or more choices for President. Unlike the much-discussed Palm Beach County "butterfly ballot", the Duval County ballot spread choices for President over two pages with instructions to "vote on every page" on the bottom of each page.[7] On the other side of the ledger, conservatives and Republicans charged that Democrats had registered non-citizens to vote, deliberately suppressed the overseas military vote, and arbitrarily changed vote-counting criteria after the election.[4]

Controversial issues

Following the election a number of studies have been made of the electoral process in Florida by Democrats, Republicans, and other interested parties. A number of flaws and improprieties have been discovered in the process. Controversies included:

  • All five major US TV news networks (CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox and CNN) made the incorrect assumption that all of Florida's polls closed at 7:00 p.m. EST. All five of them reported this incorrect information at the top of the 6:00-7:00 hour. In fact, the westernmost counties in Florida had polls open for another hour, until 8:00 p.m. EST, as they are in the Central Time Zone. This region of the state traditionally voted mostly Republican. Because of the above mistaken assumption, some media outlets reported at 7:00 p.m. EST that all polls had closed in the state of Florida. Also, significantly, the Voter News Service called the state of Florida for Gore at 7:48 p.m. EST. A survey estimate by John McLaughlin & Associates put the number of voters who did not vote due to confusion as high as 15,000, which theoretically reduced Bush's margin of victory by an estimated 5,000 votes;[8] a study by John Lott found that Bush's margin of victory was reduced by 7,500 votes.[9] This survey assumes that the turnout in the Panhandle counties would have equaled the statewide average of 68% if the media had not incorrectly reported the polls' closing time and if the state had not been called for Gore while the polls were still open. This opens the possibility that Bush would have won by a larger margin and controversy would have been avoided if the networks had known and reported the correct poll closing times and called the state after all polls were closed. In a 2010 issue of TV Guide, the premature calls for Gore's victory ranked #2 on a list of TV's ten biggest "blunders", and were blamed for ushering in a new era of public distrust of the media.[10]
  • Democratic State Senator Daryl Jones said that there had to have been an order to set up roadblocks in heavily Democratic regions of the state on the day of the election.[11] This charge, however, has never been substantiated.
  • Democratic lawyer Mark Herron authored a memo distributed to Democratic election canvassers on how to invalidate military absentee ballots. The Herron Memo stated postmark and "point of origin" criteria Herron maintained could be used to invalidate military ballots. But the Herron Memo was in line with a letter sent out by Secretary of State Katherine Harris stating that if a postmark was not present on a military ballot, it had to be thrown out. On November 19, 2000, Democratic vice-presidential candidate Senator Joseph I. Lieberman appeared on Meet the Press and said that election officials should give the "benefit of the doubt" to military voters rather than disqualifying any overseas ballots that lacked required postmarks or witness signatures. Until that point, the Democrats had pursued a strategy of persuading counties to strictly enforce those requirements by disqualifying illegal ballots and reducing votes from overseas, which were predominantly cast for Bush.[12] Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth, a Gore backer, later told the counties to go back and reconsider those ballots without a postmark.[13]
Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris became a controversial figure during the Florida electoral recount.
  • A suit by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP v. Harris) argued that Florida was in violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the United States Constitution's Equal Protection Amendment. Settlement agreements were reached in this suit.[14] A systematic investigation by the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice found no evidence of racial discrimination.[15]
  • Democrats claimed that between May 1999 and Election Day 2000, two Florida secretaries of state, Sandra Mortham and Katherine Harris, contracted with DBT Online Inc., at a cost of $4.294 million, to have the "scrub list"s reworked. Nearly 1% of Florida's electorate and nearly 3% of its African-American voters — 57,746 citizens — were listed as felons and removed from the voting rolls. (For instance, many had names similar to actual felons, some listed "felonies" were dated years in the future, and some apparently were random.) It was contended that in a small minority of cases, those on the scrub list were given several months to appeal, and some successfully reregistered and were allowed to vote, but most were not told that they weren't allowed to vote until they were turned away at the polls, with the company directed not to use cross-checks or its sophisticated verification plan (used by the FBI).[16]
  • People like Washington County Elections Chief Carol Griffen (1 p.25) have argued that Florida was in violation of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 by requiring those convicted of felonies in other states (and subsequently restored their rights by said states) to request clemency and a restoration of their rights from Governor Jeb Bush, in a process that could take two years and ultimately was left to Bush's discretion. (In 1998 Schlenther v. Florida Department of State held that Florida could not prevent a man convicted of a felony in Connecticut, where his civil rights had not been lost, from exercising his civil rights.)
  • The Brooks Brothers riot: Democrats claimed that Republicans brought in outside, paid activists to hinder the manual recount in Miami-Dade County, which was allegedly shut down "shortly after" screaming protesters arrived who were allegedly Republican Party members flown in from other states, some at Republican Party expense.[17] Republicans, conversely, contended that their peaceful demonstration (which involved chanting and requests for media attention) was in response to the Miami-Dade election board's unlawful decision to secretly recanvass ballots without Republican observers present. The Republicans noted that the election board was not bipartisan (as it was run by Democrat members - Myriam Lehr, Lawrence King and David Leahy) and that the ballots sought to be recanvassed were fragile (with their perforated "chads" that would designate which candidate was selected being able to be easily removed to "cast votes" and not "count votes"). This demonstration by Republican supporters, which took place in view of multiple national network television cameras, resulted in the election board reversing their earlier decision to recount ballots without representatives of both parties present. The Republican representatives involved in the recount effort, attribute this demonstration, pejoratively dubbed by the Democratic operatives as the "Brooks Brothers Riot", as a key factor in "preventing the stealing of the 2000 presidential election".[18][19]
  • The suppression of vote pairing. In brief, websites sprang up to match Nader supporters in swing states like Florida with Gore supporters in non-swing states like Texas: the Nader supporters in Florida would vote for Gore and the Gore supporters in Texas would vote for Nader. This would have allowed Nader to get his fair share of the vote and perhaps get into the Presidential debates while allowing Gore to carry swing states. Six Republican state secretaries of state, led by Bill Jones of California, threatened the websites with criminal prosecution and caused some of them to reluctantly shut down. The ACLU got involved in a legal (not political) effort to protect the sites, and the Federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Jones two years later, but by then the election was over. The vote-pairing sites allegedly tallied 1,412 Nader supporters in Florida who voted for Gore.[20][21]
  • The actions of the Florida Supreme Court drew fierce criticism from Republicans, who argued that the court was exceeding its authority and issuing rulings biased in Gore's favor. The court acted "on its own motion" to stop the official certification of the election while specifically allowing the recount to continue. The Gore legal team never requested that court action, but the contention was that Florida law gives the court the right to take action without such a request.[22] Similarly, the court's December 10, 2000 ruling ordered a statewide counting of undervotes, which the Gore team had also not requested.[23] James Baker, among other Republicans, accused the court of violating longstanding Florida law, on which basis Bush appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.[24] Democrats argued that the Florida Supreme Court was simply trying to ensure a fair and accurate count.[25]

Adding to these controversies was the fact Bush's brother, Jeb Bush, was the governor of Florida at the time of the recount.

Palm Beach County's butterfly ballots

Simulation of the "butterfly ballot", seen at an angle

Allegations were raised that many voters in Palm Beach County who intended to vote for Gore or Bush actually marked their ballots for Pat Buchanan or spoiled their ballots because of the ballot's confusing layout.

Some commentators and observers have asserted that an unusually large number of ballots were spoiled because of two votes in the same race, with one of those two votes for Pat Buchanan with the other for Bush or Gore.

Buchanan said on The Today Show, November 9, 2000: "When I took one look at that ballot on Election Night ... it's very easy for me to see how someone could have voted for me in the belief they voted for Al Gore."[26] He, unlike the voters, did not see the ballot before Election Night.

Although Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said on November 9, 2000 that "Palm Beach County is a Pat Buchanan stronghold and that's why Pat Buchanan received 3,407 votes there",[27] Buchanan's Florida coordinator, Jim McConnell, responded by calling that "nonsense", and Jim Cunningham, chairman of the executive committee of Palm Beach County's Reform Party, responded: "I don't think so. Not from where I'm sitting and what I'm looking at." Cunningham estimated the number of Buchanan supporters in Palm Beach County to be between 400 and 500. Asked how many votes he would guess Buchanan legitimately received in Palm Beach County, he said: "I think 1,000 would be generous. Do I believe that these people inadvertently cast their votes for Pat Buchanan? Yes, I do. We have to believe that based on the vote totals elsewhere."[28]

The ballot was redesigned earlier that year by Theresa LePore (Supervisor of Elections, and member of the Democratic Party). She said that she used both sides of the ballot in order to make the candidate names larger so the county's elderly residents could more easily see the names.[29]


Due to the narrow margin of the original vote count, Florida Election Code 102.141 mandated a statewide machine recount.[30] In addition, the Gore campaign requested that the votes in three counties be recounted by hand. Florida state law at the time allowed the candidate to request a manual recount by protesting the results of at least three precincts.[31] The county canvassing board would then decide whether to recount as well as the method of the recount in those three precincts.[32] If the board discovered an error, they were then authorized to recount the ballots.[33]

Once the closeness of the election in Florida was clear, both the Bush and Gore campaigns organized themselves for the ensuing legal process. On November 9, the Bush campaign announced they had hired George H. W. Bush's former Secretary of State James Baker to oversee their legal team,[34] and the Gore campaign hired Bill Clinton's former Secretary of State Warren Christopher.

The canvassing board did not discover any errors in the tabulation process in the initial mandated recount.

The Bush campaign sued to prevent additional recounts on the basis that no errors were found in the tabulation method until subjective measures were applied in manual recounts.

The Gore campaign, as allowed by Florida statute, requested that disputed ballots in four counties be counted by hand. Florida statutes also required that all counties certify and report their returns, including any recounts, by 5 p.m. on November 14. The manual recounts were time-consuming, and, when it became clear that some counties would not complete their recounts before the deadline, both Volusia and Palm Beach Counties sued to have their deadlines extended.

Florida Supreme Court appeals

File:Craig Waters During the 2000 Election Appeals.jpg
Florida Supreme Court spokesman Craig Waters

The trial of Palm Beach Canvassing Board v. Katherine Harris was a response from the Bush campaign to state litigation against extending the statutory deadlines for the manual recounts. Besides deadlines, also in dispute were the criteria that each county's canvassing board would use in examining the overvotes and/or undervotes. Numerous local court rulings went both ways, some ordering recounts because the vote was so close and others declaring that a selective manual recount in a few heavily Democratic counties would be unfair.

Eventually, the Gore campaign appealed to the Florida Supreme Court, which ordered the recount to proceed. The Bush campaign subsequently appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States, which took up the case Bush v. Palm Beach County Canvassing Board on December 1. On December 4, the U.S. Supreme Court returned this matter to the Florida Supreme Court with an order vacating its earlier decision. In its opinion, the Supreme Court cited several areas where the Florida Supreme Court had violated both the federal and Florida constitutions. The Court further held that it had "considerable uncertainty" as to the reasons given by the Florida Supreme Court for its decision. The Florida Supreme Court clarified its ruling on this matter while the United States Supreme Court was deliberating Bush v. Gore.

At 4:00 p.m. EST on December 8, the Florida Supreme Court, by a 4 to 3 vote, ordered a manual recount, under the supervision of the Leon County Circuit Court and Leon County Elections Supervisor Ion Sancho, of disputed ballots in all Florida counties and the portion of Miami-Dade county in which such a recount was not already complete. That decision was announced on live world-wide television by the Florida Supreme Court's spokesman Craig Waters, the Court's public information officer. The Court further ordered that only undervotes be considered. The results of this tally were to be added to the November 14 tally.

U.S. Supreme Court Proceedings

The recount was in progress on December 9, when the United States Supreme Court, by a 5 to 4 vote (Justices Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg and Breyer dissenting), granted Bush's emergency plea for a stay of the Florida Supreme Court recount ruling, stopping the incomplete recount.

About 10 p.m. EST on December 12, the United States Supreme Court handed down its ruling in favor of Bush. Seven of the nine justices saw constitutional problems with the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution in the Florida Supreme Court's plan for recounting ballots, citing differing vote-counting standards from county to county and the lack of a single judicial officer to oversee the recount. Five justices held there was insufficient time to impose a unified standard and that the recounts should therefore be stopped and Florida be allowed to certify its vote, effectively ending the legal review of the vote count with Bush in the lead. The decision was extremely controversial due to its partisan split and the majority's irregular instruction that its judgment in Bush v. Gore should not set precedent but should be "limited to the present circumstances". Gore conceded the election, but said he disagreed with the Court's decision.

This ruling stopped the vote recount, allowing Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris's certification of the election results to stand. This allowed Florida's electoral votes to be cast for Bush, making him president-elect.

Post-election studies

Florida Ballot Project recounts

The National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, sponsored by a consortium of major United States news organizations, conducted a Florida Ballot Project comprehensive review of all ballots uncounted (by machine) in the Florida 2000 presidential election, both undervotes and overvotes, with the main research aim being to report how different ballot layouts correlate with voter mistakes. The total number of undervotes and overvotes in Florida amounted to 3% of all votes cast in the state. The review's findings were reported in the media during the week after November 12, 2001.

The NORC study was not primarily intended as a determination of which candidate "really won". Analysis of the results found that different standards for the hand-counting of machine-uncountable ballots would lead to different results. The results according to the various standards were reported in the newspapers that funded the recount, such as The Miami Herald[35] and the Washington Post.[36]

Media Recounts

After the election, recounts conducted by various United States news media organizations indicated that Bush would have won if certain recounting methods had been used (including the one favored by Gore at the time of the Supreme Court decision) but that Gore might have won under other scenarios.[37]

USA Today, The Miami Herald, and Knight Ridder commissioned accounting firm BDO Seidman to count undervotes: ballots that did not register any vote when counted by machine. BDO Seidman's results, reported in USA Today, show that under the strictest standard, where only a cleanly punched ballot with a fully removed chad was counted, Gore won by three votes.[38] Under all other standards, Bush won, with Bush's margin increasing as looser standards were used. The standards considered by BDO Seidman were:

  • Lenient standard. Any alteration in a chad, ranging from a dimple to a full punch, counts as a vote. By this standard, Bush won by 1,665 votes.
  • Palm Beach standard. A dimple is counted as a vote if other races on the same ballot show dimples as well. By this standard, Bush won by 884 votes.
  • Two-corner standard. A chad with two or more corners removed is counted as a vote. This is the most common standard in use. By this standard, Bush won by 363 votes.
  • Strict standard. Only a fully removed chad counts as a vote. By this standard, Gore won by 3 votes.

The study remarks that because of the possibility of mistakes, it is difficult to conclude that Gore was surely the winner under the strict standard. It also remarks that there are variations between examiners, and that election officials often did not provide the same number of undervotes as were counted on Election Day. Furthermore, the study did not consider overvotes, ballots that registered more than one vote when counted by machine.

The study also found that undervotes break down into two distinct types, those coming from punch-card counties, and those coming from optical-scan counties. Undervotes from punch-card counties give new votes to candidates in roughly the same proportion as the county's official vote. Furthermore, the number of undervotes correlates with how well the punch-card machines are maintained, and not with factors such as race or socioeconomic status. Undervotes from optical-scan counties, however, correlate with Democratic votes more than Republican votes. Optical-scan counties were the only places in the study where Gore gained more votes than Bush, 1,036 to 775.

A larger consortium of news organizations, including USA Today, The Miami Herald, Knight Ridder, The Tampa Tribune, and five other newspapers next conducted a full recount of all ballots, including both undervotes and overvotes. According to their results, Bush won under stricter standards and Gore won under looser standards.[39] A Gore win was impossible without a recount of overvotes, which he did not request, but one could argue that the recount of overvotes should have happened nonetheless, because faxes discovered after the media recount indicated that the judge overseeing the recount effort intended to have overvotes counted. These were faxes between Judge Terry Lewis and the canvassing boards throughout the state.[40]

According to the study, only 3% of the 111,261 overvotes had markings that could be interpreted as a legal vote. According to Anthony Salvado, a political scientist at the University of California, Irvine, who acted as a consultant on the media recount, most of the errors were caused by ballot design, ballot wording, and efforts by voters to choose both a president and a vice-president. For example, 21,188 of the Florida overvotes, or nearly one-fifth of the total, originated from Duval County, where the presidential race was split across two pages. Voters were instructed to "vote every page". Half of the overvotes in Duval County had one presidential candidate marked on each page, making their vote illegal under Florida law. Salvado says that this error alone cost Gore the election.

Including overvotes in the above totals for undervotes gives different margins of victory:

  • Lenient standard. Gore by 332 votes.
  • Palm Beach standard. Gore by 242 votes.
  • Two-corner standard. Bush by 407 votes.
  • Strict standard. Bush by 152 votes.

As stated by Lance DeHaven Smith in his interview with Research in Review at Florida State University:[41]

...Everybody had thought that the chads were where all the bad ballots were, but it turned out that the ones that were the most decisive were write-in ballots where people would check Gore and write Gore in, and the machine kicked those out. There were 175,000 votes overall that were so-called “spoiled ballots.” About two-thirds of the spoiled ballots were over-votes; many or most of them would have been write-in over-votes, where people had punched and written in a candidate’s name. And nobody looked at this, not even the Florida Supreme Court in the last decision it made requiring a statewide recount. Nobody had thought about it except Judge Terry Lewis, who was overseeing the statewide recount when it was halted by the U.S. Supreme Court. The write-in over-votes have really not gotten much attention. Those votes are not ambiguous. When you see Gore picked and then Gore written in, there’s not a question in your mind who this person was voting for. When you go through those, they’re unambiguous: Bush got some of those votes, but they were overwhelmingly for Gore. For example, in an analysis of the 2.7 million votes that had been cast in Florida’s eight largest counties, The Washington Post found that Gore’s name was punched on 46,000 of the over-vote ballots it, while Bush’s name was marked on only 17,000...

Opinion polling on recount

A nationwide December 14–21, 2000 Harris poll asked "If everyone who tried to vote in Florida had their votes counted for the candidate who they thought they were voting for -- with no misleading ballots and infallible voting machines -- who do you think would have won the election, George W. Bush or Al Gore?". The results were 49% for Gore and 40% for Bush with 11% unable to make up their mind or not wishing to respond.[42]

HBO film

A 2008 made-for-TV movie directed by Jay Roach, produced by, and starring Kevin Spacey called Recount explores the 2000 election and recount. It premiered on the HBO cable network on May 25, 2008.


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External links