The 2000 Bush V. Gore Supreme Court decision and the Florida recount explained

Bush and Gore Masks in Tallahassee
Bush and Gore Masks in Tallahassee / Alex Wong/GettyImages

With Donald Trump's various legal cases winding their way through the courts, we may very well be in a situation this coming November where the outcome of the presidential election is determined by the Supreme Court. It's been almost a quarter of a century since that last happened. The presidential election of 2000 was effectively decided by the Supreme Court in the case of Bush v. Gore, 531 U.S. 98 (2000), when the court ruled that a recount of the ballots in Florida should be halted, effectively awarding the election to George W. Bush.

In the fast-paced world we live in, a little over two decades ago can feel like ancient history. For that reason, it can be easy to forget the details and underestimate the significance of the sometimes strange events of recent history. Personally, I also strongly suspect that we've collectively forgotten a lot of these details because they're just too strange and do not comport with our view of elections being orderly, professional affairs.

Despite that, it's worth remembering, as the events and aftermath of the 2000 Election have been extremely consequential and laid the foundations of today's political world.

What happened during the Election of 2000?

It all started on election night (November 7, 2000), when an organization established by the Associated Press to provide election coverage to the news networks first called Florida for Democrat Al Gore before retracting that call and giving the state to Bush. Gore called Bush to concede but then retracted his concession when the Associated Press organization again changed its position, declaring it too close to call.

The initial results in Florida had Bush winning by 1,784 votes, in a state with around six million votes cast. As this was a margin of less than half a percent, Florida law mandated an automatic recount of the ballots. After that recount, Bush's winning margin was reduced to just 327 votes.

America watches the Florida recount

Outside of Florida, the electoral college count was itself so close that Florida's 25 Electoral College votes would've put either candidate over the line. Thus, the election had no result until Florida was called. The entire Presidential Election of 2000 came down to one state.

Following the first recount, which was carried out with voting machines, the Gore team requested manual recounts in four counties: Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and Volusia Counties. However, it soon became apparent that those recounts would not be completed by the deadline of 5pm on November 14th. So, while the Gore team fought to extend the deadline, the Bush team fought the recount in the courts.

On November 22nd, the recount was also marred by the "Brooks Brothers Riot," a violent demonstration by Republican Party staffers, which resulted in the recount being shut down early for the day.

The basis for the Bush team's argument was that using different counting methods in different counties (i.e., machine counting in some counties, and manual recounts in others) violated the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause. Part of the reason for a manual recount taking place in some states was the famous "hanging chads."

Bush V. Gore sends Florida into chaos

"Hanging chads" became one of the most infamous phrases of the 2000 election cycle, and an instant punchline. A chad is the small piece of paper that is knocked out by a hole puncher, and a chad is "hanging" when it's not entirely punched out, and left... well, hanging. Many counties in Florida used a punch card ballot system, and hanging chads can render a ballot unreadable by a voting machine. A study by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) found 17,010 rejected ballots. This number of rejected ballots dwarfs Bush's winning margin.

The other oddly-named infamous controversies of the 2000 presidential election were the “butterfly ballot” used in Palm Beach County and the "caterpillar ballot" used in Duval County. The butterfly ballot made it unclear which space the voter should punch, by having the candidates' names in two columns, and the punch space down the middle, while the caterpillar ballot had the candidates' names spread across two pages, giving the impression that the second page was for a separate "down-ballot" election.

The butterfly ballot resulted in a dramatic overperformance from minor party candidate Pat Buchannan, whose name was across from Al Gore's. A study by the American Science Review determined that errors caused by the butterfly ballot cost Gore the election. Even Buchanan himself conceded that "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."

When the court halted the recount, the majority decision held that to continue the recount with a uniform statewide standard would mean that no result could be delivered before the federal discretionary "safe harbor" deadline of December 12th. This conclusion allowed the vote count certified by Florida's Republican Secretary of State Katherine Harris to stand.

It's impossible to say who would have won with a comprehensive standardized recount, as the punch card ballot system is notoriously unreliable for producing ballots that cannot be read either by a voting machine or by a manual count. While the aforementioned American Science Review found that the Butterfly ballots cost Gore the election, a study by NORC found that had the recounts already underway continued, Bush would've still won, but under a full standardized recount, Gore would've won (though some scenarios for that recount gave him a margin of as few as 60 votes). A similar study by USA Today and The Miami Herald had Gore prevailing by just three votes!

As it stands, however, history remembers that Bush won, receiving 271 votes in the electoral college (one vote more than he needed to win), and he lost the popular vote by more than 500,000 votes. If there's one positive takeaway from this, it's that massively consequential elections can hinge on a very small number. Sometimes, every vote counts.

Got questions about history, trivia, or anything else? Send an email to askeverest@fansided.comand we might answer here on the site!

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