The Florida secretary of state in 2000 was a Republican politician named Katherine Harris, and the squishy deadline gave her a alternative: She may both hold her workplace open by way of the weekend, triggering the Sunday night deadline, or she may adhere to regular enterprise hours and accumulate the ultimate tallies on Monday morning, giving the counties an extra 16 hours to rely votes.
Harris opened on Sunday. And when it turned out that Palm Seaside County wanted extra time to get by way of all its ballots, the reply from Harris’ workplace was “no.” Quickly thereafter, she presided over a certification ceremony that didn’t have in mind Palm Seaside County’s new rely—which might have added about 200 Gore votes to his Florida complete. Harris and her colleagues within the secretary of state’s workplace have been selecting to certify a rely they knew was incomplete.
Ultimately, the additional votes in Palm Seaside wouldn’t have swung the election for Gore. However the complete race turned on simply 537 votes—and Harris’ Sunday opening was simply one of many tiny, improbably consequential elements that might have tipped the steadiness.
As absurd as it’s to assume an election will be determined by whether or not an workplace is open on a Sunday, it’s a form of absurdity that’s baked into the American electoral system, and which Individuals may effectively confront once more subsequent week—fairly probably in a number of states. The selection between Bush and Gore turned out to be monumentally necessary to the nation, and even 20 years later, there’s one thing haunting about the concept that a bureaucratic quirk may have made that call for 300 million folks.
We encountered the office-opening story whereas making “Fiasco,” a podcast documentary in regards to the 2000 election. And the deeper we acquired into our analysis, the extra we realized that it wasn’t distinctive. Our objective with “Fiasco” has all the time been to look at main historic occasions, and forensically establish the turning factors, selections and delusions that decided their course. The 2000 election, and the Florida recount particularly, provided a storyline with an infinite variety of turning factors. As a result of the vote margin was so small, each fork within the street regarded plausibly decisive—not simply looking back, however on the time.
This 12 months, the scenario could possibly be way more excessive.
What does the 2000 recount have to inform us about 2020? A contested election, we realized, is an unmapped minefield of one million small issues that might swing the consequence, or hold it from being resolved for days, weeks, and even longer. Whether or not or not Katherine Harris’ workplace could be open on Sunday, November 26, was removed from the one factor that determined the 2000 election. However it did make a distinction, regardless of being reasonably far faraway from what you’d assume would have been a very powerful query: Who acquired extra votes in Florida?
This 12 months, with the Covid pandemic already scrambling our voting procedures, a president who has spent months calling ballots into query and two events already engaged in high-stakes election litigation, the sense of chaos that enveloped Florida in 2000 may multiply throughout the complete system. Listed here are some explanation why.
1. Really, There Is No System
The American system for electing a president is far more fragile and convoluted than we understood earlier than we regarded below the hood of the 2000 recount. One elementary motive for that is that there really is no system. There are 51 of them, as a result of every state (and Washington, D.C., which additionally sends electors) has completely different election legal guidelines—but additionally, extra precisely, there are greater than 3,000 of them, as a result of every county in every state has its personal set of native specs.
In observe, this implies a) there are quite a lot of guidelines to maintain observe of, and b) it may be tough to anticipate which of these guidelines will grow to be necessary as soon as the votes begin being tallied. Working example: One Gore staffer advised us that after Election Day 2000 he was dispatched to Wisconsin, not Florida, as a result of at that juncture it appeared potential that Wisconsin was heading to authorized time beyond regulation as effectively, or as an alternative. If it had been, we might have needed to make an entire separate podcast.
As soon as it grew to become clear the ballgame could be performed and gained in Florida, all eyes have been on the intricacies of its recount legislation. Beneath what circumstances was a recount allowed? Beneath what circumstances was it required? These have been questions the Gore marketing campaign needed to reply in authorized briefs and courtroom speeches, with regards to arcane Florida statutes, once they requested for hand recounts in 4 particular Florida counties. Every of those counties was run by its personal three-member “canvassing board,” every of which dealt with the recount requests in a different way and was topic to completely different pressures.
Earlier than Palm Seaside butted up in opposition to Harris’ unbending deadline, the canvassing board there needed to cope with the issues attributable to its punch-hole “butterfly poll” design, in addition to a novel, county-specific commonplace for deciphering the voter’s intent if a poll was ambiguous. Not each voter punched out the holes utterly, and the argument over simply how cleanly a gap needed to be punched grew to become, for a time, a subject of intense nationwide curiosity.
Oh, and the counties set their very own trip schedules, too. In a transfer that appeared like a good suggestion on the time, Palm Seaside determined to provide its counting workforce the time off on Thanksgiving—which meant it misplaced a few day on the rely, and missed its deadline the next Sunday. As with Harris’ determination to open her doorways, there was a good probability the presidency may have relied on that tiny determination.
2. Election Regulation Can Contradict Itself
Elections are on the very coronary heart of democracy, and so they’re pretty predictable in how they work, so that you’d assume election legislation could be completely locked down and easy, like a secure kernel of laptop code.
Not so. Probably the most shocking subplots we realized about needed to do with a contradiction inside Florida’s election legislation—a seemingly minor discrepancy that abruptly grew to become a pivotal difficulty. In 2000, Florida state legislation set a seven-day deadline for counties to finalize their vote tallies after Election Day and submit them to the secretary of state. Normally that wasn’t a difficulty. However when it grew to become one, legal professionals for the Bush and Gore campaigns found there have been two legal guidelines that addressed this deadline. One mentioned the secretary of state “shall” ignore late election outcomes, however one other, newer statute mentioned the secretary of state “could” ignore late election outcomes, however didn’t should.
That disagreement was in the end settled by a state circuit courtroom choose, who dominated in favor of “could” and was upheld by the Florida Supreme Courtroom. These sorts of inconsistencies can clog the authorized system, decelerate the recount timeline and go away room for partisan officers to make judgment calls that rob the method of public legitimacy. Which leads us to the opposite massive shock we encountered …
3. Good PR Can Matter as A lot because the Regulation
Throughout any election (not to mention a contested one), the 2 major-party campaigns attempt to spin each growth to their benefit. However the shocking factor in regards to the PR battles fought throughout the 2000 recount was that they weren’t nearly successful hearts and minds—they really had a concrete, measurable influence on the vote totals as they developed after Election Day.
The clearest instance is likely to be the battle over abroad absentee ballots—or because the GOP began calling them, “army ballots.” Republicans argued that incomplete absentee ballots despatched by active-duty army voters (who have been anticipated to favor Bush) must be counted even when they have been lacking postmarks. That wasn’t in line with the authorized arguments they have been making about not-quite-perfect ballots from Democratic-leaning counties, which the Bush marketing campaign wished to topic to strict scrutiny. However the obvious contradiction didn’t matter. The all-out media blitz persuaded six Florida counties to just accept unpostmarked abroad absentee ballots, yielding Bush an additional 288 accepted ballots and not using a single courtroom having to rule in his favor. Add that to Gore’s uncounted Palm Seaside votes, and also you’re getting near Democratic counter-history.
4. When in Doubt, a Riot Can Work
After which there was the Brooks Brothers Riot. On November 22, 2000, the Miami-Dade canvassing board was set to start a countywide hand recount of ballots. A part of the way in which by way of, GOP recount observers have been horrified to find that the canvassing board had determined to alter the parameters of its recount to avoid wasting time—and that its members have been absconding to a non-public room to keep away from interruption. In response, a bunch of protesters that turned out to be composed primarily of GOP operatives from Washington determined to interact in somewhat civil disobedience, and crowd the federal government constructing the place the recount was going down. A number of dozen protesters—principally clean-cut males carrying costume shirts—gathered exterior the room the place the counting was going down, chanting “Allow us to see the ballots!” Some banged on glass and tried to storm the room.
Did they have an impact? Very possible so. Quickly after the group was dispersed, the Miami-Dade canvassing board introduced that, on account of issues in regards to the secretary of state’s certification deadline, it was suspending its recount—which had to this point yielded a web acquire of about 150 Gore votes—and reverting to Miami-Dade’s unique vote complete. Partisans disagree about whether or not the protesters have been attempting to guard the democratic course of or forestall it. However in any case, Miami-Dade by no means restarted its recount, and the potential of Gore choosing up sufficient votes to overhaul Bush grew much more distant—all due to a profitable, semi-spontaneous stunt placed on by a bunch of motivated Republicans.
5. The 2000 Election Didn’t Even Take a look at the Limits of Loopy
In 2000, due to the Supreme Courtroom’s ruling in Bush v. Gore, and Gore’s willingness to just accept it, neither aspect ended up having to interact with the weirdest, most complicated a part of the American electoral system: the Electoral Faculty. However the campaigns have been enthusiastic about it, and their plans for what to do if issues did go that approach have been among the most absurd we uncovered.
The Electoral Faculty is talked about within the Structure and elucidated in U.S. code, however the guidelines for a way you seat presidential electors will be ambiguous and complicated, particularly if the winner isn’t settled for weeks. And so in Florida, because the date for seating electors neared—it was December 12—each side began devising elaborate contingency plans in case the method went haywire.
Florida Republicans began prepping for an finish run during which the state’s GOP-dominated Legislature would merely seat Florida’s 25 Republican electors if the vote complete nonetheless wasn’t settled—or wasn’t settled to their liking?—by the deadline. Florida’s then-Senate President John McKay advised us he dreaded doing it. He knew it might appear like the Republicans have been unilaterally seating Florida’s electors with out regard for the favored vote, and whereas he believed his celebration was appearing with integrity, he didn’t need to give future candidates, who won’t be so honorable, “a blueprint for ill-purposes.”
In the meantime, Democrats have been devising a possible Hail Mary of their very own to answer a potential finish run by the Florida Legislature. They referred to as it “Plan X”; Gore adviser Ron Klain described it to us as their “most excessive thought.” Plan X was based mostly on a artistic interpretation of Florida state legislation, which mentioned the state’s electors needed to collect within the statehouse to solid their votes for president. However Florida technically had two statehouses—the official, practical one, and an outdated one which had been retired in 1978 and transformed right into a historical past museum. Plan X referred to as for reserving the outdated Florida statehouse, and staging a simultaneous ceremony of Democratic electors there. The votes of these electors could be sealed in an envelope identical to the Republican ones, and forwarded alongside to the U.S. Senate for the official processing of electoral votes. By legislation, the one who presides over that official electoral faculty rely—and the one who may theoretically resolve which of the 2 envelopes to open—was the president of the Senate. Also referred to as the sitting vice chairman. Also referred to as Al Gore.
Given the expectation this 12 months of a longer-than-normal anticipated timeline for counting absentee votes in some states, it’s not laborious to think about the 2020 election bumping up in opposition to that Electoral Faculty deadline. (This 12 months, electors meet on December 14.) And that might imply an entire new host of absurd plans to sport, or weaponize, the Electoral Faculty.
Oh, additionally: In case you assume 2000 is historical historical past, take into account that Klain—the Gore staffer who advised us about Plan X—is presently a senior adviser on the Biden marketing campaign, and reportedly the frontrunner to grow to be Biden’s chief of employees.
There’s one thing else that worries us because the nation hurtles towards Election Day 2020. It has to do with the putatively impartial authorities servants who’re supposed to guard the method from being warped by partisans—lots of whom we interviewed for “Fiasco” about their roles within the drama practically twenty years in the past.
It’s not simply the judges and Supreme Courtroom justices who are supposed to play this function. It’s additionally directors like Katherine Harris, who, whereas brazenly aligned with the Republican Get together, went to nice pains to painting herself as an apolitical actor who was simply attempting to observe the legislation. Harris hit the identical notes after we interviewed her in 2019. And, so far as we may inform, she actually believed it.
Once we requested Harris why she was unwilling to grant Palm Seaside County 16 extra hours to rely its ballots in a single day that Sunday—notably when the Florida Supreme Courtroom had indicated it might be high quality to get the vote totals on Monday morning—Harris challenged the premise of the query.
“They mentioned, initially, Friday. And we mentioned we would keep open till Sunday to provide folks extra time,” she mentioned—a characterization that left us flabbergasted, as a result of the Florida Supreme Courtroom hadn’t mentioned something about Friday. By some means, Harris remembered giving the counties extra time to complete their counts, not reducing them off on the earliest second she may legally and justifiably achieve this. Plainly 20 years later, Harris has totally revised the small print of the Palm Seaside recount to make them an illustration of her integrity and equity. “We needed to certify at 5,” she mentioned, “and we selected to remain open so they’d have the time. So that you and I disagree on that.”
The truth that Harris misremembered the central takeaway of what occurred—and dismissed the details as a matter of opinion—made it clear to our workforce that maybe essentially the most highly effective power at work in Florida, and a power we should always all anticipate to reassert itself in 2020, is that of self-justification and self-deceit. Nobody will need to be answerable for stealing the election in small methods or massive ones. And after the mud settles, everybody shall be assured that they’ve completed no such factor.