Bush Election Stirs Political and Legal Controversy

Although he lost the popular vote by a slim margin, George W. Bush won the U.S. presidency in the electoral college. However, controversial recounts of ballots in Florida indicating that Bush had won the popular vote there by a razor-thin advantage were challenged by Democratic candidate Al Gore’s camp. The resultant court case was unprecedented in U.S. history; ultimately it was put to an end by the Supreme Court’s decision in Bush v. Gore to halt the recount, thereby enabling Bush to be certified as the victor.

Summary of Event

At about 8:00 p.m. on election day, November 7, 2000, U.S. broadcast networks predicted that Democratic Party presidential candidate Al Gore had carried the state of Florida over his Republican rival, George W. Bush. However, as the evening wore on, later returns indicated that the race in Florida was too close to call, and it became evident, as closely matched as the candidates were nationwide, that Florida’s twenty-five electoral votes would decide the presidency. The candidate who carried that state would have the necessary majority in the electoral college. Gore, having at first conceded the election, reversed his decision on learning that Florida law provided for a mandatory machine recount of the ballots if the percentage separating the candidates was less than 0.5 percent. The next day, the Florida Division of Elections announced that Bush had won the state by a 1,784-vote margin; two days later, the legally required machine recount had the difference at only 327 votes in favor of the Republican nominee. Supreme Court, U.S.;Bush v. Gore (2000)
Presidential elections, U.S.;2000
Bush v. Gore (2000)
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Supreme Court, U.S.;Bush v. Gore (2000)
Presidential elections, U.S.;2000
Bush v. Gore (2000)
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Gore, Al
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Rehnquist, William H.

Both camps began moving key operatives, lawyers, and volunteers to Florida to contest the results for their respective candidates. The governor of Florida was Bush’s younger brother, Jeb Bush, and the electoral results would eventually have to be certified by Katherine Harris, the Republican secretary of state for Florida.

The Gore camp, directed by former U.S. secretary of state Warren Christopher, asked—under the terms of another Florida statute—for a manual recount in the four counties of Miami-Dade, Broward, Volusia, and Palm Beach. The recount proceeded but faced a deadline of November 14, which—it became increasingly apparent—would not allow sufficient time for all the votes to be recounted. The acceptance of late filings was left at the discretion of Secretary of State Harris, who, after rejecting extension petitions from the counties, scheduled the final election certification for November 18, allowing adequate time for the overseas ballots to be tallied. In response to a suit filed on behalf of Gore and Palm Beach County (Palm Beach County Canvassing Board v. Harris), Palm Beach County Canvassing Board v. Harris (2000) the Florida Supreme Court enjoined Harris from certifying the results and ordered the recount to continue until November 26.

Many Gore supporters believed that the Bush campaign was engaging in a strategy to prevent the completion of the recount process while Bush was still ahead. Bush campaign adviser James Baker, also a former U.S. secretary of state, filed a suit in the U.S. Supreme Court on November 22 on his candidate’s behalf. On December 4, the suit, known as Bush v. Palm Beach County Canvassing Board, Bush v. Palm Beach County Canvassing Board (2000) was returned to the Florida Supreme Court for clarification; that clarification was later taken into consideration in the case of Bush v. Gore.

The recount process proved increasingly cumbersome: A good deal of time was devoted to debate over voting-machine punch-hole malfunctions and to whether or not the varying conditions of the “chads”—the bits of paper loosened when the ballots were perforated—were reflective of voter intent. Another controversy flared over the arrangement of so-called butterfly ballots in certain jurisdictions. In Palm Beach County, such ballots had been designed to assist older voters, but it was alleged that they instead created confusion and caused more than 6,000 “overvotes”—votes that had to be disqualified when holes next to two candidates’ names were inadvertently punched.

At 5:00 p.m. on November 26, 2000, Harris certified Bush as the winner of Florida’s electoral votes by virtue of his 537-vote advantage at that moment. Gore’s supporters filed a court challenge (Gore v. Harris) Gore v. Harris (2000) on November 27. When it was rejected on December 4 by Judge Samuel Sauls of the Leon County Circuit Court, they appealed to the Florida Supreme Court. On December 8, the court issued a ruling that ordered the continuation of manual recounts on disputed ballots and “undervotes.” On December 9, the Bush campaign challenged this ruling in the U.S. Supreme Court, in what became known as Bush v. Gore, contending that the differing methods used by each county to determine ballot validity were an infringement on constitutional rights.

The arguments in Bush v. Gore were presented on December 11. Attorney David Boies, pleading Gore’s case, asserted that as each jurisdiction had the right to determine its own method of counting votes, there was an implied universal standard of voter intent, and that the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment Fourteenth Amendment (U.S. Constitution) to the U.S. Constitution had not been violated (as had been argued by Bush attorney Ted Olson).

On December 12, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist announced the decision. The Court upheld the Olson-Bush argument by a majority of seven to two, declaring the recount unconstitutional. In a separate vote of five to four, the court ordered a halt to all recounts, going back, in effect, to Secretary of State Harris’s November 26 certification of Bush as the winner of Florida’s electoral votes, and thus of the presidency.

Chief Justice Rehnquist concurred with the per curiam (authorless) majority opinion and was supported by justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Sandra Day O’Connor, and Anthony Kennedy, while Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David Souter, John Paul Stevens, and Stephen G. Breyer dissented.


Inasmuch as the presidential policies of the world’s premier superpower over the next four to eight years were decided, the implications of Bush v. Gore in terms of global and national history were incalculable. The events of November-December, 2000, are among the most bitterly debated constitutional events of recent times. The sense of divisiveness left in their wake—and the different light that they would shed on the public’s perception of the workings of the electoral and legal systems—would linger for years to come. Supreme Court, U.S.;Bush v. Gore (2000)
Presidential elections, U.S.;2000
Bush v. Gore (2000)

Further Reading

  • Dershowitz, Alan M. Supreme Injustice: How the High Court Hijacked Election 2000. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. The author, a Harvard law professor, sees the Supreme Court’s Bush v. Gore decision as purely politically motivated.
  • Greenfield, Jeff. Oh Waiter! One Order of Crow! Inside the Strangest Presidential Election Finish in American History. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2001. An offbeat, disjointed account with amusing insights into the complex series of events of November-December, 2000.
  • Kellner, Douglas. Grand Theft 2000: Media Spectacle and a Stolen Election. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001. The author offers a partisan account in which he is very critical of the election technology, the officiating, and the media. He lays the majority of the blame on the Bush camp.
  • Sammon, Bill. At Any Cost: How Al Gore Tried to Steal the Election. Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 2001. Characterizes Gore as a Machiavellian operator who nearly achieved his goal through questionable methods.
  • Simon, Roger. Divided We Stand: How Al Gore Beat George Bush and Lost the Presidency. New York: Crown, 2001. In spite of the fact that he was a lame-duck president who was not officially involved in the campaign, Bill Clinton is depicted here as a significant influence in the election’s eventual outcome.
  • Tapper, Jake. Down and Dirty: The Plot to Steal the Presidency. Boston: Little, Brown, 2001. Presents a witty and cynical view of the Florida process; pictures both candidates as equally opportunistic and unscrupulous.
  • Toobin, Jeffrey. Too Close to Call: The Thirty-Six-Day Battle to Decide the 2000 Election. New York: Random House, 2001. Ascribes Gore’s loss to the Democratic candidate’s lack of the relentless intensity in opposition that characterized Bush’s antirecount campaign.
  • Wayne, Stephen J., and Clyde Wilcox, eds. The Election of the Century and What It Tells Us About the Future of American Politics. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 2002. Collection of essays examines various aspects of the 2000 election and places the issues involved within the larger context of American politics.

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