In the hour or so it took Mark Herron to walk his dogs on election night in 2000, the outcome of the U.S. presidential race plunged into uncertainty. As Herron, a Tallahassee attorney and legal analyst for the Democratic Party, left his house, the TV networks announced that Vice President and Democratic candidate Al Gore had won the crucial state of Florida over Republican Gov. George W. Bush. By the time Herron returned home, the broadcasters had retracted the news. At 1:30 a.m., the heads of the Florida Democratic Party called Herron to ask about the state's arcane rules governing overseas absentee ballots. At 4 a.m., he received an urgent call from then Florida Democratic Rep. Peter Deutsch and Ed Rendell, then chair of the Democratic National Committee. "The direction was: 'Get out of bed and get to work; the guys are coming to town,' " recalls Herron, who would serve as one of Gore's attorneys on a recount.
But at that moment, few foresaw the political roller coaster ride that would raise unprecedented questions about how the country elects its president. For 36 days, who won the White House was in limbo, as Bush and Gore were separated by a razor-thin margin, complicated by voting difficulties in Florida and the complexities of election law. Ultimately, 47 lawsuits related to the election were filed in Florida, and a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court decided the matter. "Elections are a messy business," says Barry Richard, a Democrat who was Bush's lead trial litigation attorney. "There have probably been hundreds of thousands of mistakes [in past elections], but they were not noticed before 2000 because they didn't have such an impact." Since then, reform efforts have only somewhat improved how elections are run.
At 3 a.m. on November 8, Gore conceded to Bush when he pulled 50,000 votes ahead and broadcasters put Florida's 25 electoral votes into the Republican's win column. But within two hours, Bush's lead in the state had shrunk and the small margin triggered an automatic recount under Florida law. Overnight, concerns about voting irregularities emerged in places like Palm Beach County, where a punch-card ballot with a format that was easily misread resulted in many disqualified votes.
Intent. Later on November 9, Gore's team demanded a manual recount in Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade, and Volusia counties. News outlets carried images of Florida election officials staring at hanging, dimpled, and pregnant chads on Florida's punch-card ballots, trying to "discern the intent" of the voters. Bush's lawyers argued to block the recounts; several more attempts to stop, or protect, the recounts and ballot certifications also were filed. On November 24, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear Bush's appeal of a Florida high court ruling that allowed hand recounts to proceed.
The legal wrangling only intensified. On November 26, Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, who doubled as state campaign cochair for Bush, certified voting results that gave Bush a 537-vote lead. Gore's team won a court hearing to challenge those totals. On December 1, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments over whether the Florida Supreme Court had overstepped its authority in managing recount issues. On December 8, Florida's high court upheld the manual recount. The next day, Bush successfully appealed for a stay from the U.S. Supreme Court to stop the recount. Bush's team argued that the Constitution's guarantee of equal protection for all citizens disqualified a manual recount because Florida's counties had followed differing vote-counting procedures. The Gore team demanded that every vote be counted. On December 12, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-to-4 vote, stopped the Florida recount. Though Gore received more popular votes than Bush, he conceded the next day. And the rest, as they say, is history.