The Rigged 2000 Florida Recount and the Path to Donald Trump

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Photo: Colin Braley /Reuters

Donald Trump has repeatedly warned that the election is “rigged,” insinuated that hordes of African-Americans and illegal immigrants will steal the election through illegal ballots, and urged his supporters to monitor “certain areas.” Many observers have denounced these paranoid warnings as dangerous and corrosive to democratic politics. But Washington Examiner columnist Tim Carney calls these warnings liberal hypocrisy, because Democrats disputed the legitimacy of the 2000 election:

I attended a Congressional Black Caucus hearing in the weeks after the election when one CBC member called the 2000 election a “coup d’etat.” This was a member of Congress talking about the president. Jesse Jackson, less than a year after receiving the Medal of Freedom from Bill Clinton, consistently accused Bush of a coup. Four years later, Democrats held a charade on the floor objecting to Ohio’s electoral votes.

Carney is missing an important part of the definition here. The point of the complaints about Trump’s rhetoric is that he is falsely impugning the fairness of the election problem, by citing imaginary conspiracies. Nobody is saying it’s wrong to impugn the fairness of an election that was actually stolen. It is clear that we can find examples in American history in which authorities did orchestrate fraud or violence to countermand election results. Acknowledging those episodes does not undermine the proper functioning of the system.

And, yes, the 2000 election is absolutely one of those cases. If you want to read a longer version of what happened, try a book like Jeffrey Toobin’s account. But the summary is that George W. Bush was not supported by a plurality of voters in Florida, yet he received that state’s electoral votes through a combination of unfair factors. Some of these were mere mistakes without bad intent at all: Faulty ballot design caused tens of thousands of Democrats to mistakenly vote for Pat Buchanan; Republican-leaning counties had election technology that produced fewer ballot-reading errors than Democratic counties, causing Democratic ballots to be discarded at a higher rate. In the category of semi-bad faith acts, the state’s governor, Jeb Bush, used a sweeping, error-riddled method to purge 12,000 legal voters, of whom a vastly disproportionate number were minorities, from the rolls.

And then the actions of the state’s officials during the recount, as Toobin aptly recounts, reeked of partisan bad faith. Bush and his campaign continued to insist every day the votes had been counted and recounted, when they had not. (The tabulations had been checked, but most ballots that had not recorded a vote in a machine had never been examined.) The state’s decisions disregarded any interest in reflecting voter intent, and instead manically ran out the clock, in the ultimately correct belief that it could prevent a recount through delay. Ultimately, five Republican Supreme Court justices joined in that strategy, halting the statewide recount that was ordered by the Democratic-controlled state supreme court. The Court’s decision was so ludicrously reverse-engineered to justify ending the recount that its majority had to insist that the “precedent” it used as its basis was “limited to the present circumstances” — which is to say, the Court invented a principle that had never been used before, and would never be used again, for the sole purpose of making George W. Bush president.

Newspapers examined the ballots in the fall of 2001. Defenders of the decision justified it retroactively by asserting that the recount would have ended up with Bush winning anyway. Even if true, this would hardly justify the behavior of Republican officials in Florida and the Supreme Court, who blocked the recount precisely because they did not know its outcome. (If they were certain Bush would have prevailed, they would have happily let it proceed.) In any case, the recount did not actually support this conclusion. The decisive trove of originally uncounted ballots turned out to be “overvotes” — ballots where the voter had checked the box of a candidate and then written in that same candidate’s name. The standard of vote counting that the state supreme court had ordered was to discern the intent of the voters, and a ballot with the same candidate checked and written in has clear intent. Any count that included those ballots would have resulted in Gore winning.

Newspaper accounts of this process emphasized a different conclusion: that Bush would have won. They arrived at this conclusion by assuming the overvotes would not have been included in the total, a strange conclusion perhaps best understood by the hyperpatriotic atmosphere that prevailed at the time. After Bush v. Gore, Democrats were left with no legal option to contest the election, however unfair the process had been. And so they decided the sanctity of elections required graceful concessions. Democratic officials faced intense pressure to accede to the legitimacy of Bush’s election, and any complaint about the recount became a taboo subject. (At the time, there were no liberal blogs, and liberal opinion in the mainstream press tended to conform strongly to centrist, bipartisan norms.) This pressure was intensified by the 9/11 attacks, which created an almost panicked desire to legitimize Bush as not only a rightful president but a wise leader, the perfect man for the moment, who the country was fortunate to have during its ordeal.

By the time Bush’s aura of competence had dissipated in his second term, the recount had been long forgotten. Well-informed journalists and intellectuals who were too young to follow the episode closely generally have no idea how bad it got. At one point, officials in Dade County who were carrying out a legally mandated automatic recount were forced to stop by an unruly mob of Republican staffers who busted into their building — an actual case of physical intimidation preventing public officials from carrying out their election duties.

There is a connection between Florida 2000 and Trump’s hysterical rhetoric, but it is the opposite of the one Carney describes. A party that was already beginning to go off the rails was already exhibiting the irrational authoritarian traits that its presidential nominee has now made so alarmingly plain.