Florida election recount

For the 2008 film about this event, see Recount (film).

The Florida election recount of 2000 was a period of vote recounting in Florida that occurred during the weeks after Election Day in the 2000 United States presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore. The Florida vote was ultimately settled in Bush's favor by a margin of 537 votes when the U.S. Supreme Court, in Bush v. Gore, stopped a recount that had been proposed by the Florida Supreme Court. That in turn gave Bush a majority of votes in the Electoral College and victory in the presidential election.[1]


The controversy began on election night, when the national television networks, using information provided to them by the Voter News Service, an organization formed by the Associated Press to help determine the outcome of the election through early result tallies and exit polling, first called Florida for Gore in the hour after polls closed in the eastern peninsula (which is in the Eastern time zone) but before they had closed in the heavily Republican counties of the western panhandle (which is in the Central time zone). Once the polls had closed in the panhandle, the networks reversed their call, giving it to Bush; then they retracted that call as well, finally indicating the state was "too close to call".[2] Gore phoned Bush the night of the election to concede, then retracted his concession after learning how close the election was.[3] Bush won the election-night vote count in Florida by 1,784 votes. The small margin produced an automatic recount under Florida state law. Once it became clear that Florida would decide the presidential election, the nation's attention focused on the recount.


Palm Beach County recount attracted protestors and media.
"Butterfly ballot"

The Florida election was closely scrutinized after Election Day. Once the results were announced, charges were raised that some irregularities favored Bush. Among these was the Palm Beach "butterfly ballot," which some pundits claimed produced an "unexpectedly" large number of votes for third-party candidate Pat Buchanan. Conservative opinion commentators countered that the same ballot was successfully used in the 1996 election with no post-election protest,[4] although in 1996 the butterfly ballot caused an estimated 14,000 votes for the second candidate on the left (Bob Dole) to be miscast. As this did not affect the election outcome, it went unnoticed at the time.[5] Progressive commentators also claimed that there was a purge from the Florida voting rolls of over 54,000 citizens identified as felons, of whom 54% were African-American, and that the majority of these were not felons and should have been eligible to vote under Florida law.[6] (It was widely presumed that had they been able to express themselves at the polls, most would have chosen the Democratic candidate).[7] Additionally, there were charges that there were many more "overvotes" than usual, especially in predominantly African-American precincts in Duval county (Jacksonville), where some 27,000 ballots showed two or more choices for President. Unlike the much-discussed Palm Beach County butterfly ballot, the Duval County ballot spread choices for President over two pages with instructions to "vote on every page" on the bottom of each page.[8] On the other side of the ledger, conservatives and Republicans charged that Democrats had registered non-citizens to vote, deliberately suppressed the overseas military vote, and arbitrarily changed vote-counting criteria after the election.[4]

Controversial issues

Studies of the electoral process in Florida have been done by Democrats, Republicans, and other interested parties, that reveal various flaws and improprieties. Controversies included:

Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris became a controversial figure during the Florida electoral recount.

Adding to these controversies was the fact that Florida's governor was the Republican presidential nominee's brother, although the governor recused himself from the recount process.

Palm Beach County's butterfly ballots

Simulation of the "butterfly ballot", seen at an angle

Allegations were raised that many voters in Palm Beach County who intended to vote for Gore or Bush actually marked their ballots for Pat Buchanan or spoiled their ballots because of the ballot's confusing layout. Some commentators and observers have asserted that an unusually large number of ballots were spoiled because of two votes in the same race, with one of the two for Buchanan and the other for Bush or Gore. According to a 2001 study in the American Political Science Review, the voting errors caused by the butterfly ballot cost Gore the election: "Had PBC used a ballot format in the presidential race that did not lead to systematic biased voting errors, our findings suggest that, other things equal, Al Gore would have won a majority of the officially certified votes in Florida."[27]

On The Today Show of November 9, 2000, Buchanan said, "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."[28] He, unlike the voters, did not have the opportunity to see the ballot before Election Day.

Although Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said on November 9 that "Palm Beach County is a Pat Buchanan stronghold and that's why Pat Buchanan received 3,407 votes there",[29] Buchanan's Florida coordinator, Jim McConnell, responded by calling that "nonsense", and Jim Cunningham, chairman of the executive committee of Palm Beach County's Reform Party, responded: "I don't think so. Not from where I'm sitting and what I'm looking at." Cunningham estimated the number of Buchanan supporters in Palm Beach County to be between 400 and 500. Asked how many votes he would guess Buchanan legitimately received in Palm Beach County, he said: "I think 1,000 would be generous. Do I believe that these people inadvertently cast their votes for Pat Buchanan? Yes, I do. We have to believe that based on the vote totals elsewhere."[30]

The ballot had been redesigned earlier that year by Theresa LePore (Supervisor of Elections, and member of the Democratic Party). She said that she used both sides of the ballot in order to make the candidate names larger so the county's elderly residents could more easily see the names.[31]


Due to the narrow margin of the original vote count, Florida Election Code 102.141 mandated a statewide machine recount.[32] In addition, the Gore campaign requested that the votes in three counties be recounted by hand. Florida state law at the time allowed the candidate to request a manual recount by protesting the results of at least three precincts.[33] The county canvassing board would then decide whether to recount as well as the method of the recount in those three precincts.[34] If the board discovered an error, they were then authorized to recount the ballots.[35]

Once the closeness of the election in Florida was clear, both the Bush and Gore campaigns organized themselves for the ensuing legal process. On November 9, the Bush campaign announced they had hired George H. W. Bush's former Secretary of State James Baker to oversee their legal team,[36] and the Gore campaign hired Bill Clinton's former Secretary of State Warren Christopher.

The canvassing board did not discover any errors in the tabulation process in the initial mandated recount. The Bush campaign sued to prevent additional recounts on the basis that no errors were found in the tabulation method until subjective measures were applied in manual recounts.

The Gore campaign, as allowed by Florida statute, requested that disputed ballots in four counties be counted by hand. Florida statutes also required that all counties certify and report their returns, including any recounts, by 5 p.m. on November 14. The manual recounts were time-consuming, and, when it became clear that some counties would not complete their recounts before the deadline, both Volusia and Palm Beach Counties sued to have their deadlines extended.

Florida Supreme Court appeals

Florida Supreme Court spokesman Craig Waters

The trial of Palm Beach Canvassing Board v. Katherine Harris was a response from the Bush campaign to state litigation against extending the statutory deadlines for the manual recounts. Besides deadlines, also in dispute were the criteria that each county's canvassing board would use in examining the overvotes and/or undervotes. Numerous local court rulings went both ways, some ordering recounts because the vote was so close and others declaring that a selective manual recount in a few heavily Democratic counties would be unfair.

Eventually, the Gore campaign appealed to the Florida Supreme Court, which ordered the recount to proceed. The Bush campaign subsequently appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States, which took up the case Bush v. Palm Beach County Canvassing Board on December 1. On December 4, the U.S. Supreme Court returned this matter to the Florida Supreme Court with an order vacating its earlier decision. In its opinion, the Supreme Court cited several areas where the Florida Supreme Court had violated both the federal and Florida constitutions. The Court further held that it had "considerable uncertainty" as to the reasons given by the Florida Supreme Court for its decision. The Florida Supreme Court clarified its ruling on this matter while the United States Supreme Court was deliberating Bush v. Gore.

At 4:00 p.m. EST on December 8, the Florida Supreme Court, by a 4 to 3 vote, ordered a manual recount, under the supervision of the Leon County Circuit Court and Leon County Elections Supervisor Ion Sancho, of disputed ballots in all Florida counties and the portion of Miami-Dade county in which such a recount was not already complete. That decision was announced on live worldwide television by the Florida Supreme Court's spokesman Craig Waters, the Court's public information officer. The Court further ordered that only undervotes be considered. The results of this tally were to be added to the November 14 tally.

U.S. Supreme Court proceedings

Main article: Bush v. Gore

The recount was in progress on December 9 when the United States Supreme Court, by a 5 to 4 vote (Justices Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg and Breyer dissenting), granted Bush's emergency plea for a stay of the Florida Supreme Court recount ruling, stopping the incomplete recount.

About 10 p.m. EST on December 12, the United States Supreme Court handed down its ruling to stop the recount. Seven of the nine justices saw constitutional problems with the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution in the Florida Supreme Court's plan for recounting ballots, citing differing vote-counting standards from county to county and the lack of a single judicial officer to oversee the recount. Five justices held there was insufficient time to impose a unified standard and that the recounts should therefore be stopped and Florida be allowed to certify its vote, effectively ending the legal review of the vote count with Bush in the lead. The decision was extremely controversial due to its partisan split and the majority's unusual instruction that its judgment in Bush v. Gore should not set precedent but should be "limited to the present circumstances". Gore said he disagreed with the Court's decision, but conceded the election.

Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris's certification of the election results was thus upheld, allowing Florida's electoral votes to be cast for Bush, making him president-elect.

Florida counties' recount decisions

Florida Attorney General Robert Butterworth in his advisory opinion to county canvassing boards:[37]

The longstanding case law in Florida [ ] has held that the intent of the voters as shown by their ballots should be given effect. Where a ballot is so marked as to plainly indicate the voter's choice and intent, it should be counted as marked unless some positive provision of law would be violated. As the state has moved toward electronic voting, nothing in this evolution has diminished the standards first articulated in such [judicial] decisions ... that the intent of the voter is of paramount concern and should be given effect if the voter has complied with the statutory requirement and that intent may be determined. ... The Florida Statutes contemplate that where electronic or electromechanical voting systems are used, no vote is to be declared invalid or void if there is a clear indication of the intent of the voter as determined by the county canvassing board.

Conservative writer Andrew Sullivan in a contemporaneous article:[38]

There is a real issue here about what voting actually means. To some, voting is a right that should be guaranteed regardless of any incompetence, error, failure, or irresponsibility on the part of the voter. ... Others have a different view. They argue that American democracy is ... a far stricter, Lockean, Anglo-American system based on the letter of the law and a successful vote cast by a rational, responsible voter. In this constitutional system, the "will of the people" is an irrelevant abstraction. ... From affirmative action and hate-crime laws it's a small step to ensuring that all voters, however negligent, have their intent, however vague, reflected in the final result of an election.
Pre-certification decisions that altered certified Florida 2000 presidential vote total
Decision-makers Decisions Impact on vote count[lower-alpha 1]
Gore Bush
Canvassing boards around the state Decisions by some canvassing boards to count illegal overseas absentee ballots.[lower-alpha 2] At Thanksgiving, decisions by 14 county boards to reverse prior decisions in order to include 288 ballots that had been rejected days earlier.[39][40][41][42] 194[lower-alpha 3] 486[lower-alpha 3]
Canvassing boards of Alachua, Bay, Bradford, Charlotte, Columbia, Escambia, Franklin, Gulf, Hendry, Hernando, Holmes, Lake, Manatee, Okaloosa, Okeechobee, St. Johns and Washington Counties Election day decisions by 17 Optiscan counties not to "manually review overvotes that couldn't be properly read by machine"[lower-alpha 4][43][44][45] -1278 -826
Canvassing boards of Alachua, Bay, Charlotte, Citrus, Columbia, Escambia, Franklin, Gadsden, Hamilton, Holmes, Jackson, Lake, Leon, Manatee, Monroe, Okaloosa, Okeechobee, Polk, Seminole, St. Johns, Suwanee, Taylor and Washington Counties Election day decisions by 23 Optiscan counties not to "manually review undervotes that couldn't be read by counting machines"[lower-alpha 4][lower-alpha 5][43] -789[lower-alpha 6] -733[lower-alpha 6]
Canvassing boards of Collier, DeSoto, Dixie, Duval, Glades, Hardee, Highlands, Hillsborough, Indian River, Jefferson, Lee, Madison, Marion, Miami-Dade, Nassau, Osceola, Pasco, Pinellas, Sarasota, Sumter and Wakulla Counties Election day decisions by 21 punch-card counties not to "attempt to determine voter intent on undervotes that couldn't be read by counting machines"[lower-alpha 4][lower-alpha 7][43] -1310 -1858
The above 21 boards plus Palm Beach County Canvassing Board Election day decisions by 22 punch-card counties not to "attempt to determine voter intent on overvotes that couldn't be properly read by machine"[lower-alpha 4][lower-alpha 8][43] -396 -189
Palm Beach County Canvassing Board Decision not to review dimpled ballots with clear indications of intent[lower-alpha 9][43] -2735 -2107
Nassau County Canvassing Board Decision to change county's certified vote from the mechanical recount total back to the election night vote total[47] 73 124
Secretary of State Katherine Harris Decision not to include Palm Beach County's vote recount results (all but 53 precincts) submitted before certification deadline[lower-alpha 10][43][46][48][49][50][51] -480 -265
Secretary of State Katherine Harris Decision not to include Miami-Dade County's vote recount results (139 precincts) accomplished before certification deadline[42][48][52] -302 -134
Impact of all decisions on candidates' potential statewide totals -7023 -5502
Potential statewide vote count in absence of all decisions[lower-alpha 11] 2,919,174 2,918,227
48.85% 48.84%
984 margin[lower-alpha 12]
  1. Positive sign indicates number of votes that decision caused to be included (or put back) in state certified total. Negative sign indicates number of votes that decision caused to be excluded from state certified total.
  2. Ballots received after deadline, lacking required postmarks, unsigned, undated, cast after election day, from unregistered voters or voters not requesting ballots, lacking witness signature or address, or double-counted.
  3. 1 2 Dr. Gary King of Harvard University applied statistical modeling to determine that the best estimate for the impact of illegal votes would reduce the certified vote margin for Bush from 537 to 245.[39][40]
  4. 1 2 3 4 According to standards being applied by each county at the time. Two-coder general agreement for punch-card counties.
  5. Taylor County determined voter intent on some overvotes; however, it did not include them in its certified results.
  6. 1 2 Includes increase in Orange County's unofficially revised machine-tabulated vote total, due to machine later counting 512 ballots that were previously machine-rejected ("could not be distinguished from ballots that were accepted and counted – they appeared to be properly completed"): Gore 249, Bush 184 (total 433)[42]
  7. Amount excludes 139 Miami-Dade precincts that were recounted.
  8. Unlike the other 20 counties, Palm Beach and Pasco Counties determined voter intent on 74 overvotes for Gore and Bush; however, they did not include them in their certified results.[42]
  9. Of these 4842 excluded ballots, 4513 had been set aside by the canvassing board for later inspection by a court (which never happened). All were among 10,310 undervotes in the county. The "set aside" ballots were dimpled ballots that were challenged by the two parties. A January 2001 review by the Palm Beach Post of those "set-aside" ballots determined that 4318 were "unambiguous" valid votes.[46]
  10. When Palm Beach County completed its recount two hours after the certification deadline, its final count was Gore 501 votes, Bush 327 votes excluded from the state certified total.
  11. On December 9, 2000, five counties (Escambia, Leon, Liberty, Madison, Manatee) completed recounts of undervotes ordered by the Florida Supreme Court, identifying a small number of new votes.
  12. The NORC study did not address either of the concerns about overseas absentee ballots and Nassau County's certification change. The effect of removing these impacts above is to reduce this margin to 641 in favor of Gore.

Post-election studies

Florida Ballot Project recounts

The National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, sponsored by a consortium of major United States news organizations, conducted the Florida Ballot Project, a comprehensive review of 175,010 ballots that were collected from the entire state, not just the disputed counties that were recounted.[53] These ballots contained undervotes (votes with no choice made for president) and overvotes (votes made with more than one choice marked).

The project's goal was to determine the reliability and accuracy of the systems used in the voting process, including how different systems correlated with voter mistakes. The total number of undervotes and overvotes in Florida amounted to 3% of all votes cast in the state. The review's findings were reported in the media during the week after November 12, 2001, by the organizations that funded the recount: Associated Press, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The St. Petersburg Times, The Palm Beach Post and Tribune Publishing, which included the Los Angeles Times, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Orlando Sentinel and Chicago Tribune.[54][55] The NORC concluded that if the disputes over the validity of all the ballots statewide in question had been consistently resolved and any uniform standard applied, the electoral result would have been reversed and Gore would have won by 107–115 votes if only two of the three coders had to agree on the ballot. When counting ballots wherein all three coders agreed, Gore would have won the most restrictive scenario by 127 votes and Bush would have won the most inclusive scenario by 110 votes. The restrictive scenario accepts only so-called perfect ballots that machines somehow missed and did not count, or ballots with unambiguous expressions of voter intent. The inclusive scenario applies a uniform standard of "dimple or better" on punch marks and "all affirmative marks" on optical ballots to overvotes and undervotes statewide.[46]

Subsequent analyses cast further doubt on conclusions that Bush would likely still have won had the U.S. Supreme Court not intervened. An analysis of the NORC data by University of Pennsylvania researcher Steven F. Freeman and journalist Joel Bleifuss concluded that after a recount of all uncounted votes using any standard (inclusive, strict, statewide or county by county), Gore would have been the victor.[56] Such a statewide review including all uncounted votes was a real possibility, as Leon County Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis, whom the Florida Supreme Court had assigned to oversee the statewide recount, had scheduled a hearing for December 13 (mooted by the U.S. Supreme Court's final ruling on the 12th) to consider the question of including overvotes. Subsequent statements by Lewis and internal court documents support the likelihood that overvotes would have been included in the recount.[57] Florida State University professor of public policy Lance deHaven-Smith observed that, even considering only undervotes, "under any of the five most reasonable interpretations of the Florida Supreme Court ruling, Gore does, in fact, more than make up the deficit".[46] Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting's analysis of the NORC study and media coverage of it supports these interpretations and criticizes the coverage of the study by media outlets such as the New York Times and the other media consortium members.[55]

Candidate outcomes based on potential non-absentee recounts in Florida presidential election 2000
(outcome of one particular study)[54]
Review method Winner
Review of all ballots statewide (never undertaken)  
  Standard as set by each county canvassing board during their survey Gore by 171
  Fully punched chad and limited marks on optical ballots Gore by 115
  Any dimples or optical mark Gore by 107
  One corner of chad detached or optical mark Gore by 60
Review of limited sets of ballots (initiated but not completed)  
  Gore request for recounts of all ballots in Broward, Miami-Dade, Palm Beach, and Volusia counties Bush by 225
  Florida Supreme Court of all undervotes statewide Bush by 430
  Florida Supreme Court as being implemented by the counties, some of whom refused and some counted overvotes as well as undervotes Bush by 493
Unofficial recount totals  
  Incomplete result when the Supreme Court stayed the recount (December 9, 2000) Bush by 154
Certified Result (official final count)  
  Recounts included from Volusia and Broward only Bush by 537

Media recounts

After the election, recounts conducted by various United States news media organizations indicated that Bush would have won if certain recounting methods had been used (including the one favored by Gore at the time of the Supreme Court decision) but that Gore might have won under other scenarios.[58][59] Some reports counted undervotes (chad blocked hole), while others also counted overvotes (hole punched plus write-in names).

USA Today, The Miami Herald, and Knight Ridder commissioned accounting firm BDO Seidman to count undervotes: ballots that did not register any vote when counted by machine (many due to dimpled or hanging chads blocking a hole). BDO Seidman's results, reported in USA Today, show that under the strictest standard, where only a cleanly punched ballot with a fully removed chad was counted, Gore won by three votes.[60] Under all other standards, Bush won, with Bush's margin increasing as looser standards were used. The standards considered by BDO Seidman were:

The study remarks that because of the possibility of mistakes, it is difficult to conclude that Gore was surely the winner under the strict standard. It also remarks that there are variations between examiners, and that election officials often did not provide the same number of undervotes as were counted on Election Day. Furthermore, the study did not consider overvotes, ballots that registered more than one vote when counted by machine.

The study also found that undervotes break down into two distinct types, those coming from punch-card counties, and those coming from optical-scan counties. Undervotes from punch-card counties give new votes to candidates in roughly the same proportion as the county's official vote. Furthermore, the number of undervotes correlates with how well the punch-card machines are maintained, and not with factors such as race or socioeconomic status. Undervotes from optical-scan counties, however, correlate with Democratic votes more than Republican votes. Optical-scan counties were the only places in the study where Gore gained more votes than Bush, 1,036 to 775.

A larger consortium of news organizations, including USA Today, The Miami Herald, Knight Ridder, The Tampa Tribune, and five other newspapers next conducted a full recount of all ballots, including both undervotes and overvotes. According to their results, Bush won under stricter standards and Gore won under looser standards.[61] A Gore win was impossible without a recount of overvotes, which he did not request; but one could argue that the recount of overvotes should have happened nonetheless, because faxes between Judge Terry Lewis and the canvassing boards throughout the state indicated that Lewis, who oversaw the recount effort, intended to have overvotes counted.[62]

According to the study, only 3% of the 111,261 overvotes had markings that could be interpreted as a legal vote. According to Anthony Salvado, a political scientist at the University of California, Irvine, who acted as a consultant on the media recount, most of the errors were caused by ballot design, ballot wording, and efforts by voters to choose both a president and a vice president. For example, 21,188 of the Florida overvotes, or nearly one-fifth of the total, originated from Duval County, where the presidential ballot was split across two pages and voters were instructed to "vote every page". Half of the overvotes in Duval County had one presidential candidate marked on each page, making their vote illegal under Florida law. Salvado says that this alone cost Gore the election.

Including overvotes in the above totals for undervotes gives different margins of victory:

The overvotes with write-in names were also noted by Florida elections observer Lance deHaven Smith, in his interview with Research in Review at Florida State University:[63]

...Everybody had thought that the chads were where all the bad ballots were, but it turned out that the ones that were the most decisive were write-in ballots where people would check Gore and write Gore in, and the machine kicked those out. There were 175,000 votes overall that were so-called “spoiled ballots.” About two-thirds of the spoiled ballots were over-votes; many or most of them would have been write-in over-votes, where people had punched and written in a candidate’s name. And nobody looked at this, not even the Florida Supreme Court in the last decision it made requiring a statewide recount. Nobody had thought about it except Judge Terry Lewis, who was overseeing the statewide recount when it was halted by the U.S. Supreme Court. The write-in over-votes have really not gotten much attention. Those votes are not ambiguous. When you see Gore picked and then Gore written in, there’s not a question in your mind who this person was voting for. When you go through those, they’re unambiguous: Bush got some of those votes, but they were overwhelmingly for Gore. For example, in an analysis of the 2.7 million votes that had been cast in Florida’s eight largest counties, The Washington Post found that Gore’s name was punched on 46,000 of the over-vote ballots it, [sic] while Bush’s name was marked on only 17,000... Lance deHaven-Smith[63]

Opinion polling on recount

A nationwide December 14–21, 2000 Harris poll asked, "If everyone who tried to vote in Florida had their votes counted for the candidate who they thought they were voting for — with no misleading ballots and infallible voting machines — who do you think would have won the election, George W. Bush or Al Gore?". The results were 49% for Gore and 40% for Bush, with 11% uncertain or not wishing to respond.[64]

HBO film

The 2008 made-for-TV movie Recount, directed by Jay Roach and produced by and starring Kevin Spacey, explores the 2000 election and recount. It premiered on the HBO cable network on May 25, 2008.

See also


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