Broward County canvassing board member Judge Robert Rosenberg uses a magnifying glass to examine a disputed ballot at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in this Nov. 24, 2000, file photo.(Photo: Alan Diaz, AP)
Donald Trump’s refusal to say he'll accept the result of an election he claims is rigged comes 16 years after a presidential election crisis whose conclusion upheld something Trump now questions — the integrity of American democracy.
Trump’s stance has evoked memories of Bush v. Gore and the Florida vote recount, which until now seemed as messy as a national U.S. election could get.
That election is infamous for hanging chads, butterfly ballots and the photo of a judge, glasses on forehead, squinting uncertainly at a ballot. It didn’t end until 37 days after Election Day. Jeff Greenfield, who covered the recount for CNN, called it “a blend of The Federalist Papers and Celebrity Death Match.’’
Some Trump surrogates claim their man’s reservations about this election are no different than Democratic nominee Al Gore’s in 2000, when an automatic Florida recount left him just several hundred votes shy of Republican George W. Bush in a state whose electoral votes would decide the presidency.
Likening Trump to Gore is nonsense, lawyers, journalists and scholars who argued, covered or studied Bush v. Gore said Thursday. They said 2000 and 2016 have many differences and one big similarity: their significance for the legitimacy of the winner and the system.
Differences between then and now:
Election 2000 was about how to count ballots, not widespread voter fraud, as Trump contends will happen this year
“I don’t recall anyone ever alleging fraud,’’ says Mac Stipanovich, a GOP lobbyist who advised Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris. “It was all mechanical and legal issues.’’
John Hardin Young, a trial lawyer who was on a team of Democratic election lawyers (he’s portrayed in the HBO movie Recount) agreed: “That case wasn’t about what happened on Election Day,’’ he said, but rather “an antiquated voting system” that should have been replaced years earlier.
One result of the case: Tens of millions of federal dollars to help states update their voting machinery.
An official ballot for the general election in Palm Beach County, Fla., is shown Nov. 7, 2000. The close proximity of the holes and the numbering system for the candidates caused some confusion for voters. (Photo: James Prichard, AP)
Election 2000 ended in a dead heat; this one looks more and more like a blowout.
"The flaws that exist in all elections only matter when the results are close,’’ said George Terwilliger, who led Bush’s legal team during the recount and later became acting U.S. attorney general. “This is not shaping up to be close."
That’s an understatement, said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political analyst who wrote a book on the recount, Overtime!: “The odds of Trump getting that close to Clinton in the popular vote are so long you can’t fit the number on your page.’’
Terrance Jones, a salesman at a store in Orlando, Fla., watches a bank of televisions as George W. Bush comments on the recount of Florida ballots in this Nov. 8, 2000, file photo. (Photo: Joe Burbank, AP)
Election 2000 occurred in a time of what Greenfield called “national rest,’’ and involved two relative moderates who didn’t arouse strong emotions among most voters — a contrast to this year..
The Cold War was over. The economy was booming. The tech bust, homeland terrorism and the Great Recession were all in the future.
Sabato says after waiting for more than a month, Americans just wanted it to end: “They were more exhausted than anything else. We were out of time. It was almost Christmas!’’
Danna Neely, of Lakeland, Fla., dressed as George W. Bush, left, playfully chokes Terra Frie, also of Lakeland, Fla., dressed as Al Gore, during the Tampa Bay Buccaneers game against the Green Bay Packers on Nov. 12, 2000, in Tampa, Fla. (Photo: Steve Nesius, AP)
Election 2000 could have precipitated a constitutional standoff, but the loser conceded and everyone moved on.
The denouement reinforced both parties’ stakes in the status quo: The Republicans' because that was how they’d come to power; the Democrats’ because their concession was worth nothing if it didn’t reflect a belief that democracy was bigger than any one election.
After the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 on Dec. 12 that it was time to stop counting ballots, Gore said, “I spoke with George W. Bush and congratulated him on becoming the 43rd president of the United States.’’ He said he’d called “to offer my concession and accept my responsibility, which I will discharge unconditionally, to honor the new president-elect and to do everything possible to help him bring Americans together.’’
Bush, speaking later at the Texas capitol in Austin, matched Gore’s tone: “I was not elected to serve one party, but to serve one nation. … The president of the United States is the president of every single American, of every race and background.’’
Police separate the supporters of George W. Bush, left, and the supporters of Al Gore, right, in front of the Supreme Court on Dec. 1, 2000. (Photo: Pat Benic, AP)
Contrast them with Trump in Wednesday’s presidential debate, when asked if he’d accept the election result: "I will look at it at the time,’’ he replied, citing the "corrupt media" and claiming that millions of people are registered to vote who shouldn't be and that Clinton "shouldn't be allowed to run" for president "based on what she did with emails and so many other things."
On Thursday, he made a joke of it: “I would like to promise …. that I will totally accept the results of this great and historic presidential election — if I win.”
Some Democrats and Republicans who worked in the 2000 recount battle weren’t amused.
Young, the Democratic lawyer: “What Gore did in 2000 was gracious; what Trump’s doing now is silliness. He’s acting like a spoiled child.’’
Stipanovich, the GOP operative: “Gore did the right thing. … This is classic Trump, throwing stuff against the wall to see what’ll stick.’’
They disagreed on Trump’s potential damage.
“On Nov. 9, Trump will have lost and the nation will go on,’’ Young said. But he noted an impact on less resilient democracies around the world: “Whenever a dictator knows he’s going to lose, the first thing he does is challenge the election. It’s the only thing left.’’
Stipanovich was less sanguine: “This does lasting damage to our democracy. … It makes it more difficult for there to be compromise in government, and sooner or later someone is going to strike out at a system he says is rigged.’’
But Trump has his own precedents. Not every Democrat in 2000 accepted the election’s legitimacy.
This Nov. 8, 2000, file photo shows the Orlando Sentinel's election night headlines. (Photo: Peter Cosgrove, AP)
The New Republic called the Supreme Court ruling a “judicial putsch’’ (or coup). Writing in The Nation, prosecutor-author Vincent Bugliosi said the five-justice majority was “criminal’’ and should be jailed. Terry McAuliffe, who would soon chair the Democratic National Committee, said, “Let us never forget it. Al Gore won that election.’’
In that sense, 2000 and 2016 both evidence a growing tendency to view a rival party’s presidency as illegitimate.
Jack Rakove, one of the nation’s foremost constitutional historians, is co-editor of The Unfinished Election of 2000. “The last three presidents have suffered from either legitimacy crises or challenges to their legitimacy,’’ he said. ”The net effect has been a set of repeated attacks on the validity of presidential authority.’’
Bush was elected while losing the popular vote. Bill Clinton was also elected with less than half of the vote. Barack Obama was dogged by unfounded accusations (including from Trump) that he was not born in the nation and not a citizen.
Rakove was not optimistic about what comes next, saying that, if elected, Hillary Clinton “will be exposed to her own set of de-legitimating attacks. So if one assumes that we all have a common interest in the effective exercise of presidential power, especially when Congress is so incompetent, these are all depressing developments.’’
The good news is that if the nation can recover from Bush v. Gore, it can recover from Trump v. Clinton.
Al Gore pauses after reading a brief statement in Nashville, Tenn., on Nov. 8, 2000, on the recount in Florida as running mate Joe Lieberman looks on. (Photo: Doug Mills, AP)
In 2000, Rep. Alcee Hastings, a Florida Democrat, called the high court’s decision a “stain on democracy. … The legitimacy of any president where the votes are left uncounted is automatically a consideration.’’
But, he added, Bush would be the president, “and if the Middle East explodes tomorrow, we will rally round him as we would around Al Gore.’’
Nine months later there was an explosion, though not the Middle East. And there was no question about Bush’s legitimacy.
During the long recount, Sabato recalled, “some people were asking, ‘Do we need a president?’ On that day,’’ he said of Sept. 11, 2001, “we recognized why we do.’’