World

Fiasco in Florida

Americans wait for their next president to emerge from a nasty post-election battle

Andrew Phillips November 27 2000
World

Fiasco in Florida

Americans wait for their next president to emerge from a nasty post-election battle

Andrew Phillips November 27 2000

The political stars finally seemed to be lining up for George W. Bush late last week. After being declared the winner of the presidential contest in Florida (and thus the entire United States) on election night, and then again by recount at midweek, he was poised to be anointed a third time.The states top election official was due to certify his victory—giving him an enormous legal and public relations boost in his fight to become the 43rd president of the United States. He even came back from his ranch for the occasion, returning to the Texas governor’s mansion in Austin in time to receive expected word that Katherine Harris, Florida’s secretary of state, had confirmed once more (and perhaps conclusively) that he had won Florida’s crucial 25 electoral votes—and the White House.

So close—yet still so agonizingly far. At the end of a week that saw the strangest struggle for the presidency in modern American history, Bush was denied a final victory again. In a move that caught his team off guard, Florida’s Supreme Court ordered Harris not to confirm Bush’s triumph in the state until it could hear further legal arguments on Monday—one more installment in a seemingly endless march through the courts. It wasn’t pretty. By the time the state’s top court had ruled, the post-election battle had turned into an eye-clawing, nail-scratching spectacle with nothing less than the most powerful office in the world hanging in the balance.

Officially, Bush was still ahead. At midweek, Harris announced that a final count from all of Florida’s 67 counties put him a scant 300 votes ahead of his rival, Vice-President Al Gore—an almost impossibly thin margin of one two-hundredth of one per cent of the 4.8 million votes cast across the state. With absentee ballots added in by late Friday, his margin widened to 930. If that is finally confirmed, it would give him Florida’s electoral votes for a bare Electoral College majority of 271—just enough to claim the White House. But Gore’s forces were fighting on another track, trying to persuade the courts that any final tally must include the results of painstaking manual recounts in three heavily Democratic counties in south Florida: Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade. Only if those votes are included, Gore said in Washington, can “the will of the people” be known.

The result is this: last week's plunge into Florida’s legal swamps could be just the first messy round in a much longer fight. Even though no court had ruled that the 1.5 million votes in the three counties being slowly tallied by hand will eventually be included in the official result, the Gore camp was clearly hoping that the recount will have a major impact on public opinion. Most experts predict that a manual recount will result in additional votes for Gore that were missed when ballots were counted by machine—perhaps as many as one or two thousand more. If that turns out to be accurate, the vice-president could overcome Bush’s narrow lead and claim a decisive moral victory. “Once those votes are counted, they count—maybe not legally, but the fine line between law and politics gets crossed pretty quickly,” said Robert Reich, a former labor secretary in President Bill Clinton's cabinet.

Another looming factor: declining public patience. Most polls last week showed Americans remarkably willing to let the legal drama in Florida play itself out. But there are limits, and the surveys suggested that voters want a clear result within days, not weeks. That means that whoever seems to be ahead this week, with American Thanksgiving falling on Thursday, Nov. 23, will have a big advantage if he claims that the time has come to reach a conclusion—and finally decide who will succeed Clinton at noon next Jan. 20.

Much was unclear in Florida last week, as multiple teams of lawyers battled through state and federal courts contesting exactly when and how the votes should be counted. Americans who thought they had settled things when they voted on Nov. 7 suddenly became all too familiar with the intricacies of Palm Beach politics—not to mention the vagaries of “chads,” the cardboard chips punched out of a paper ballot that, a transfixed nation learned, come in hanging, swinging, pregnant and dimpled varieties. What was all too clear was that the warring parties had passed up any chance for an amicable solution.

For both sides, it is a battle of image and substance. At the top, the candidates struck poses of studied nonchalance—awaiting the verdict of the people. Gore, ensconced in the vice-presidential residence in Washington, made calculated forays out, at one point accompanying his running mate, Senator Joseph Lieberman, and their wives to see the movie Men of Honor. Behind the scenes, though, he masterminded the fight of his life, personally co-ordinating his lieutenants in Florida.

Bush, characteristically, was more removed. He spent the week at his 1,500-acre ranch near Crawford, in central Texas, without even cable TV to keep him abreast of the doings in Florida, serenely reading a new biography of Joe DiMaggio and clearing brush—or so his aides advised. “He’s feeling as good as you can feel with such a major question mark hanging over his head,” said his senior adviser, Karen Hughes.

On the ground in Florida, however, the two camps were locked in close combat. Democrats dispatched hundreds of operatives from around the country to man offices in disputed areas and make sure that every possible vote was tallied for Gore as manual recounts proceeded. The arguments seemed at times to dissolve into the ridiculous, as when observers from rival parties argued about chads falling from ballots as they were counted by hand. Did the falling chads mean the ballots were tainted, as Republicans maintained? Or did they only show that voters had loosened the chad as they tried to punch their ballot and thus had really intended to vote for a certain candidate, as Democrats argued? Gore’s forces seemed to have the upper hand in the battle to shape public opinion, arguing that every vote should be counted, even if that meant spending days examining hundreds of thousands of punch cards. “They’re definitely beating us at the spinning game,” conceded Shari McCartney, a Republican lawyer working in Broward County. “We’re being made out to be the antithesis of the democratic process.”

In fact, both sides were walking a delicate line, trying to calculate how long Americans would tolerate the unprecedented spectacle, avoiding any move that might suggest they were putting their interests above those of the country. Republicans impatiently talked of the need for “finality”—in effect, arguing for a quick result and an end to the time-consuming manual recounts that would give Gore a chance to track down more votes in the heavily Democratic counties. Democrats insisted on a “full and fair” recount—code for taking the time to pore over every ballot and (they clearly hoped) discover vital extra votes for the vice-president.

The Republicans benefited mightily from the presence of Harris as the state’s top elections officer. A 43-year-old former real estate broker from a wealthy fourth-generation Florida family, she was an avid supporter of Bush who flew to New Hampshire last winter to campaign door-to-door for him in the Republican primary. As secretary of state, she had to make key decisions in the vote count—such as whether to stick to the letter of the law and certify the result as soon as the deadline for absentee ballots expired on Friday night, or wait for the result of the manual recounts. Harris chose to follow a narrow interpretation of state law and ignore the recount, a decision that led Democrats to attack her as a “commissar” and “lackey of the Bush campaign.”

While they fought inch-by-inch in the Florida courts, Democrats did make one dramatic bid for public support. On Wednesday, Gore made a nationally broadcast appeal to Bush to settle their dispute. His proposal: Democrats would drop further legal challenges if Republicans would agree to manual recounts in the three disputed counties—or throughout the whole state if Bush preferred. “We need a resolution that is fair and final,” he said. Bush, taken by surprise, rushed back from his ranch and went on television to flatly reject Gores offer. A manual recount, he said, “would be neither fair nor accurate. It would be arbitrary and chaotic.”

The outlook is for more of the same: more legal wrangling, more bitter partisan name-calling. Potentially, the most troubling outcome is that both men could claim victory. Bush could point to his lead in the official count, while Gore could add in votes gleaned from the manual recounts. The courts would have to settle that—or Florida’s Republican-dominated legislature might step in and decide which man Florida’s electors should support. The deadline for that decision: Dec. 18, when electors are to cast their votes in their state capitals.

The other concern hanging over the whole messy week: how badly damaged will the winner be? Americans were as divided as ever when they voted on Nov. 7. Gore won the national popular vote, but only by 217,000 out of 105 million votes cast. Congress is likewise split down the middle, with tiny Republican majorities in the Senate and House of Representatives. The result of the fracas in Florida may be a wounded president whose opponents feel cheated out of the White House.

If there was any agreement, it was that the creaky electoral system badly needs to be fixed. Even outside Florida, ballots were misplaced and miscounted in states with close races, such as Oregon and New Mexico. Critics pounced on the crazy quilt of electronic, mechanical and paper ballots used by thousands of counties to determine the presidency, and promised reforms. “To have the world’s greatest democracy facing the possibility of a legitimacy challenge as we go into the 21st century is simply bizarre,” said Iowa Republican Congressman Jim Leach. As the two parties wade deeper into the Florida swamp, pressure for change can only build.


COUNTIES IN DISPUTE

The Florida Supreme Court allowed the recount of disputed ballots to continue in Palm Beach, Miami-Dade and Broward counties, but is unclear whether the outcome will be added to the official tally.

FLORIDA COUNT

George W. Bush ... 2,911,872

Al Gore ... 2,910,942

Bush lead ... 930


NATIONAL POPULAR VOTE

George W. Bush ... 49,859,736

Al Gore ... 49,642,200

Bush lead ... 217,536