This story is a part of our Back to the Future series on how key moments in the year 2000 influenced similar events in 2020.
Twenty years ago, America experienced one of the most contentious elections of the modern era. For over a month in the year 2000, we didn’t know the final outcome of our presidential election, and the courts had to step in to decide the winner of what was essentially a tie. It was the first election since 1888 where a significant difference between the popular and electoral votes led to widespread ballot recounts, legal maneuverings, and Supreme Court intervention that dragged on for over a month.
In essence, the election of 2000 saw sitting Vice President Al Gore leading over Texas Gov. George W. Bush by around 500,000 popular votes. But Bush led Gore in the Electoral College by only four votes. The decision ultimately came down to one state: Florida, where Bush’s brother Jeb was governor.
As the vote recount went on, the political vitriol — and incredible amounts of analysis — centered on how individual votes were counted at the ballot box and if they counted at all. Pundits at the time also discussed who votes, why they vote, and leaned on political appointments in lower and higher courts in order to finesse the outcome of the election. Given this history, as we march toward the voting booths (or mailbox) in the coming weeks, it is time to look at the links between the election of 2000 and the election of 2020.
The political climate at that time was fraught. Gore campaigned to promote a robust public education system and prevent climate change. Though he barely spoke to the president at that time, he stood in as a representative of the Bill Clinton years, a Democrat ushering in an expansion of social safety nets, reforming the criminal justice system, and continuing to build jobs for the future. Bush campaigned on trickle-down tax cuts, privatized health care, and increased testing in order to hold public schools accountable for outcomes. But ultimately, the “butterfly ballots” and “hanging chads” — terms to describe the kinds of ballots being recounted and the problems with them — took a back seat to the final outcome: Bush became president.
Here’s a play by play of what happened in politics in 2000 and what we can learn from it as we move into 2020’s election.
Unemployment back then was at a decades-long low of 3.8%. The saga of Elian Gonzalez played out over television as the child was reunited with his father in Cuba. Even as America was experiencing a time of prosperity with high rates of employment and peace thanks to the Clinton/Gore administration, the country had also become exhausted by the Clinton/Lewinsky sex scandal that had ravaged the country and controlled the media for nearly two years before the 2000 election. Clinton’s sexual misconduct was not easily forgotten and would galvanize the conservative right, forcing Gore to campaign on the future rather than the record of accomplishments that he and Clinton had created. This would prove to be a critical misstep. Not only was Clinton still incredibly popular, but he was also a master fundraiser and politician.
On the night of November 7, 2000, millions of Americans were glued to their television sets as the results from the highly contentious election between Gore and Bush were finally coming to a close — or so we thought. As the electoral map began to change into shades of blue and red, the election was coming down to one state, Florida, and its 25 electoral votes. Like nothing we had ever seen before, cable news called the state initially for Gore, which would have made him the winner; but two minutes later, for the first time in modern politics, cable news anchors recanted their initial assertion of a definitive win. The announcement left viewers and both campaigns aghast.
Around 1 a.m. Eastern time on November 8, an exhausted audience was still tuned into the election results when they came in to declare a win for Gore. With everything hanging on Florida, newscasters began to call the election, and then, suddenly, they stopped. After two minutes of debates, they returned to apologize to viewers and recant initial statements of the election being “too close to call.” An hour later, the same anchors would come back on air and then tell the world that the election had been called, and this time it was Bush who was the victor via electoral vote: 271 vs. 242.
Gore then called to concede to Bush, but there was only one problem — many in his camp and Bush’s camp, including Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, thought it was still too close to call. Unsure of what to make of the fervor, Bush accepted Gore’s concession and promptly hung up after barely five minutes on the phone. This would not be the last time the two spoke that morning. At 3 a.m., in an unprecedented turn of events, Gore would make one more call to Bush and recant his initial concession. Gore’s recant kicked off the 36-day whirlwind in our nation’s politics challenging the assumption in the power of one vote and one voice.
An automatic mechanical recount began checking the tallies and ballots, placing Bush’s margin at just 327 votes. The Gore team was well within its rights at this point on November 8 to request that all of Florida’s 67 counties be recounted; however, the Gore team — making a second fatal flaw — requested a recount in only four heavily Democratic counties: Broward, Miami-Dade, Palm Beach, and Volusia. While Gore interjected himself as the face of the recount, Bush went about the business of setting up his Cabinet and left the legal woes and “pregnant chads” to his lawyers, who entered into a legal fight to end the recount. The Gore legal team headed to the Florida State Supreme Court to halt certification of the results of the elections until the completion of the hand-counting in the four Democratic counties. Turns out they won — but only momentarily.
While the Gore team thought it could rest its laurels on the decisions made by the Democrat-controlled Florida state courts, the Bush team set its sights on the Supreme Court, where conservative justices were positioned to swing the election in another direction. Entering stage left in this growing political theater was former Secretary of State James Baker, an attorney for the Bush campaign, and Warren Christopher, also a former secretary of state under Clinton for the Gore campaign. Many former Gore campaign folks noted in a CNN special that Baker was adept at political hand-to-hand combat while Christopher was an “old-school, by-the-book” lawyer. What Baker knew for certain is that in order to secure a Bush win, he must move outside of Florida and go directly to the Supreme Court in order to overturn the lower court’s decision to continue a recount. Baker’s response to those who were getting queasy about the “state’s rights party” looking for federal intervention was “Do you want to be ideologically pure, or do you want to win?”
This is important to note because this is the precedent the Bush team set up with the Supreme Court in 2000 that now has Trump and his team believing they can preempt the election results altogether even before we get to Election Day.
On December 9, 2000, over a month after Election Day, the Supreme Court in a 5–4 decision declared that the recount in Florida would end and declared Bush the winner, leaving the country and legal experts dumbfounded. This is why, 20 years later, Trump and Mitch McConnell are rushing, with just a handful of days until Election Day, to jam through the replacement for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died just weeks ago. Not only is their nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, a right-wing ideologue, she also built her legal acumen much like Justice Brett Kavanaugh and Chief Justice John Roberts on the Bush v. Gore case. A 6–3 conservative-leaning Court makes it possible — if Trump is able to move his case of fraud to the federal level and outside of the hands of the American people — for the sitting president to ensure a second term that he doesn’t even have to earn.
As William “Bill” Daley, the campaign manager for Gore, said in the CNN special Bush v. Gore: The Endless Election: “The election was rigged. I don’t say that they cheated, but I will say they owned every level of power in the state.” With Trump being in the same position and actually owning every level of power while also seemingly disinterested in earning the vote of the people, America is primed — thanks to the election of 2000 — for a moment beyond any of our wildest political nightmares.
“What worried me about Bush, not dissimilar to what concerned me about Trump, is that both of these men were failed businessmen who were being propped up by their more successful fathers. My feelings as we watched the results in 2000 was that Bush would tank the country like he had his businesses,” says Christina Greer, PhD, a political scientist and professor at Fordham University. “The similarities between 2000 and 2020 are that we saw two very incompetent men that were tapping into White America in a way we didn’t get. Each in their own ways, both Bush and Trump were selling the idea of Whiteness, which conjures a type of aspirational voting which in it of itself is quite dangerous.”
Bush ran on the idea that smaller government, increased public school accountability, and more tax cuts for the rich are better for America. He ran against the (largely false) idea that what Democrats want is to expand government, which for Republicans is code for providing access and opportunity to marginalized communities aka Black and Brown folks. The reality though is this: Greer points out that each time modern Democrats gain power they must expand government because modern Republicans typically shrink it. This is because they appear to operate from the ideology of scarcity — that there isn’t enough to go around, and so people in power must claim as much of the pie as possible.
To illustrate this point, consider this quote by President Lyndon B. Johnson:
If you can convince the lowest White man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.
The 2000 election wasn’t the only one in our history with an issue between the popular and electoral vote. The election of 1876, which occurred during Reconstruction and the creation of Jim Crow, was just as problematic.
“The year 2000 for all of its mess didn’t feel like the end of the republic,” says Melissa Harris-Perry, a political scientist and the Maya Angelou Presidential Chair at Wake Forest University. “What concerns me is not that 2020 will end up like the year 2000, which was indeed messy, but instead that this current election will look more like the year 1876.”
Here’s what happened back then. Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel Tilden were both aiming for the presidency in the midst of that period after the end of slavery, known as Reconstruction. At the same time, Black Americans were elected to government and were in prominent positions, even in the South. Southern Democrats blamed the loss of Black slaves for their economic losses. Without the ability to continue to exploit the Black community for free labor, the country and the South particularly began to spiral downward. This downturn helped the Democrats win control of the House of Representatives for the first time since the Civil War. Keep in mind that at that time, the Republicans were the party of Abraham Lincoln.
Can we all say White economic anxiety? Also happening during the time of the 1876 election was the persistence of the Supreme Court to enshrine discrimination into the fabric of America with a series of court cases making it harder and harder to prosecute the KKK and other White supremacists groups on the rise.
When the election came, Tilden had amassed 260,000 popular votes but only 184 electoral votes and was one electoral vote shy of beating Hayes outright. The dispute would come down to three states: Louisiana, Florida, and South Carolina. Between them, they had a total of 19 electoral votes to award. The decision would move from the will of the people and instead into the hands of Congress, where the chambers were divided among party lines. A new president was selected, and with it came Hayes and the Compromise of 1877, which created the Jim Crow system that would dominate the South and terrorize the Black community for over a century. And perhaps even now.
The ties between these three elections — 2020, 2000, and 1876 — gives historians pause. And Black people and other people of color should take note.
“What panics me isn’t Trump. What panics me is what appears to be the total cohesion of the Republican Party and their willingness to conform to a fascist outcome. So that is why, to me, this election feels more like 1876,” Harris-Perry says. “The courts are where Trump has the entire agreement of the Republican Party. What they are 100% down the line with are court appointments at every level. This is the golden goose they wanted. Three appointments on the Supreme Court. What Trump has done with these appointments is not just about now — it’s about cementing Republican rule for the next century — the same way the 1876 election cemented Jim Crow and White supremacy.”
The elections of 1876, 2000, and now 2020 have placed the United States in a precarious position where our government overlooks the will of the people and the co-equal branches of government and instead sets sights squarely on the courts as if they were an unmanipulated body. If there is anything that the year 2000 showed us, it is that justice is anything but blind. If you have savvy enough attorneys willing to bend the law and in the case of Trump, break it, and then get pardoned later, you set the stage for a win well before the last ballot is even cast.
The Democrats had Florida state courts on lock in 2000 but still lost the presidential election. Today, the Republicans have courts on lock, and it’s unclear how this will play out in the election if it comes to it. The issue in 2020 is that Trump has said the quiet part out loud. Despite the FBI saying otherwise, Trump keeps alluding to voter fraud that will impede his reelection. Trump has all but said that he doesn’t trust the American people and instead must ignore our votes and look to the courts and his attorney general to allow the Department of Justice to investigate voter fraud with just days to go.
For four years now, I and others have said there is no precedent for what is taking place now, and actually, when you think about it, that is false. While we remain worried about the next four years, the Republican Party is planning on the next century, and Democrats must decide in the coming weeks what James Baker asked in the year 2000 — do you want to be ideologically pure, or do you want to win? The vote is currently up to us, but, sadly, the decision may ultimately land elsewhere.