The 2000 Presidential Election – The Florida Recount
The presidential election of November 7, 2000 was one of the most memorable – and controversial – in the history of the United States. It pitted Republican candidate George W. Bush, then governor of Texas and son of former president George H. W. Bush (1989–1993), and Democratic candidate Al Gore, then Bill Clinton’s Vice President. Around 2:15 a.m. numerous news sources and television networks called the State of Florida for Bush and declared him the winner. At 2:30 a.m., Gore called Bush and conceded the election.
However, Gore advisors continued to maintain that with a mere 600 vote margin, no clear winner had emerged. At 3:30 a.m., Gore called Bush back and retracted his concession. Ultimately the 2000 presidential election would hinge on the vote in Florida. The outcome was one of the closest in U.S. presidential history. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)
By November 10th election officials calculated that Bush led by around 400 votes out of almost 6 million cast. In such a close contest Florida law demands a full machine recount in all its 67 counties. But such laws and mechanisms were open to interpretation. Numerous lawsuits and hearings ensued. Voters became familiar with butterfly ballots and hanging chads.
The Florida Supreme Court eventually ordered a manual recount in four counties: Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, and Volusia. The Bush attorneys filed in federal court to stop the hand recount based, inter alia, on principles of equal protection. In late November Florida’s canvassing board certified Bush the winner by 537 votes, but legal actions by both parties kept the outcome uncertain.
On December 12 – more than a month after the elections — the U.S. Supreme Court halted the manual recount. By a narrow 5-4 majority, the Justices ruled that the recount in four selected counties violated the principle that “all votes must be treated equally.” The 2000 presidential election was the first in 112 years in which a presidential candidate lost the popular vote but captured enough states to win the electoral vote.
Sue McCourt Cobb, a lawyer and later Ambassador to Jamaica, related her role and experience in the 2000 elections in an interview by Charles Stuart Kennedy conducted in September 2011. Also called to duty in the recount was Philip Hughes, Deputy Assistant to the Vice President for National Security Affairs; Director for Latin American Affairs on the National Security Council staff; Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Politico-Military Affairs; Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Export Enforcement; Executive Secretary of the National Security Council; and, finally, Ambassador to Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean. He wrote about his role in determining the outcome of the election.
“Lawyers for Bush” – Sue Cobb
COBB: In 2000, South Florida enjoyed a largely Democrat environment. Prior to Jeb Bush’s election, only two Republicans had been elected governor in Florida’s history (Claude Kirk and Senator Mel Martinez). Republicans were hungry.
In 1994 Jeb Bush had run for governor and lost to Lawton Chiles by 75,000 votes, a very small margin. While Jeb was running in Florida, George W. Bush was running for Governor in Texas. George won his election, but Jeb lost. Barbara and George H.W. had come down to Miami to watch the returns.
Chuck and I happened to be sitting on a couch with them as results came in from both Florida and Texas. It was an interesting night because, of course, they were elated to have George elected in Texas, but depressed by having Jeb lose by a small margin in Florida. In retrospect many people feel that result was the precursor of the years to come. And maybe so….
In 1998, Jeb became Governor of Florida. I served on Jeb’s transition team and then assumed the job of interim Secretary of the Florida Lottery. By the fall of 1999 I returned to Miami. I was bored. I thought to myself. “But wait….Jeb’s brother George is now running for President, maybe I can be helpful to the Republican Party in this campaign”.
I am an attorney so I decided to collect contact information from as many attorneys in Florida as I could who might be interested in electing a Republican president. Then I formed a little group called “Lawyers for Bush”.
My idea was that we could study George’s Bush’s policy recommendations, write letters to editors, study Florida elections laws, and prepare for attendance at polling places throughout the state, with the help of our newly created ‘Legal Rapid Response Team’. I recruited my good friend Raquel “Rocky” Rodriguez, who later became Governor Jeb Bush’s General Counsel, to help analyze the upcoming variety of legal issues and policy matters. We gathered members of “Lawyers for Bush” and planned for the future.
The presidential campaign was being run from Bush’s Austin, Texas, campaign headquarters. We learned early on that “Austin” did not want any outside groups with their own independent ideas taking unmonitored actions, so they were quite discouraging about my meager little effort to gather Florida attorneys.
Nonetheless, Republican lawyers in Florida came out of the woodwork (or some might say, the swamps). About 400 attorneys signed up as “Lawyers for Bush”. I quickly drafted 13 geographically distinct territorial captains, on whom I could rely to manage their own districts. I would send guidance now and then, but all were very enthusiastic, had their own refined (or aggressive) leadership styles, articulated Bush policies, and trained other attorneys.
By August we were very well organized in Florida. I decided to ask “Austin” for some acknowledgment and some simple support, like bumper stickers that said “Lawyers for Bush”. When Dick Cheney became the vice presidential nominee we ask for “Lawyers for Bush-Cheney” materials. We didn’t exactly get enthusiastic responses from the folks in Austin because they were busy running the national campaign…but Florida Lawyers for Bush-Cheney forged ahead. I don’t think the candidate himself ever knew anything about our Florida lawyer organization.
“‘Can you have Republican attorneys in all 67 county electoral offices in the State of Florida by 8:00 this morning?’”
Everybody remembers the election of 2000. It took thirty-six days of counting mayhem after the November 7 vote before reaching the U.S. Supreme Court decision of December 12, 2000.
The actual night of the election, November 7, I was sitting at home watching televised returns that were dragging on and on and on. Then Al Gore conceded. Then, he came back and said that “no”, he changed his mind and he hadn’t conceded. I was intensely watching TV and talking to our people in Tallahassee, but I decided I just had to go to bed.
So I went to bed at 4:30 a.m. on November 8th. At 5:00 a.m. the phone rang. It was Austin calling me. In a rushed manner a man said, “We’ve heard about your Florida lawyers’ group. Can you have Republican attorneys in all 67 county electoral offices in the State of Florida by 8:00 this morning?”…– [In] three hours!
“Yes, I said, that’s no problem at all.” I called my 13 captains and said, “Get over to your county electoral office by 8:00 a.m., take a telephone and a copy of the Florida Election Code and start doing whatever you can…we’ll see what happens next.”
I hurried to the Miami-Dade election office. Rocky and some other attorneys quickly arrived. We made our presence known, we reviewed election laws and precedents, we planned for contingencies, but we really didn’t know how the situation would unfold. (The only brilliant thing I did that morning had nothing to do with law or strategy, it had to do with me bringing a power cord for my cell phone, which no one else had. I spent most of that day sharing power).
By around 10:00 or 11:00 a.m. Nov. 8th reinforcements arrived from Austin and met me at the Miami-Dade County election office. Other Austin attorneys flew North to set up headquarters in Tallahassee. [Former Secretary of State] Jim Baker flew in to supervise everybody and everything. We had fierce opposition
from the Dem team.
Throughout the counting and recounting and volatile local demonstrations I remained near the courtrooms and counting rooms and hot spots of the four selected counties, communicating with Tallahassee as necessary.
Then after 36 days, on December 12th, the Supreme Court issued its ruling in Bush v. Gore. The election was over. I had done my part.
In a somewhat ironic twist of fate, after I concluded my term as U.S. Ambassador to Jamaica (2001-2005), I became Florida’s Secretary of State and was charged with supervising the 2006 mid-term federal elections…by which time I knew quite a lot about election law. The Republicans, in general, were soundly defeated.
The Accidental Re-counter – Philip Hughes
On Thursday, November 9, 2000 – two days after the election – I was driving through Arlington on U.S. 50, heading to a ‘thank you’ breakfast for a visiting friend from Florida. My friend had loaned me his guest cottage during my previous month’s work in Broward County for George W. Bush’s campaign. (I’d been sent there as part of an end-game surge program dubbed the ‘Bush Marshals’ – an initiative organized by Texas state senator, and later Ambassador to Sweden, Teel Bivins, for George W. Bush’s two successful gubernatorial campaigns and then duplicated nationally for his Presidential run.)
Suddenly my cell phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number. It was the RNC (Republican National Committee) calling. Could I return to Florida immediately? It wasn’t clear what was going to happen, I was told, but it looked like there would be a re-count in Florida and the office that I had managed in Broward County (as it turned out, the only remaining asset the campaign had in the county) would be needed for the effort. I immediately said ‘yes’, provided that I could first rearrange some items on my schedule and book a flight.
My erstwhile host from Fort Lauderdale arrived at breakfast, I’m sure, expecting to ruminate and fume in frustration over the completely up-in-the-air election result. We did that, of course, but more to the point, I told him that it looked like I’d be returning to Broward County immediately. Would I be welcome back at the guest house? Unsurprisingly, the ‘welcome mat’ was still out.
I used my luncheon that Thursday with my soon-to-be new boss, Clark Judge, the Managing Director of the White House Writers Group to negotiate a postponement of my ‘first day’ with my new firm – originally set for the Monday after Election Day. Fortunately, this firm of former Reagan and Bush Administration veterans was more than understanding.
My instructions couldn’t have been simpler: re-open the Sea Ranch Lakes office that I had been managing for the weeks leading up to the election and prepare to receive visitors. (Ah, tasks appropriate to my talents!) So I set up the folding tables and chairs that we had stowed just 72 hours earlier and waited – quietly terrified. In addition to the gnawing uncertainty about what would happen next and how this unprecedented situation would ultimately turn out, I was worried about what I would be called upon to do.
Despite my years in the White House and other Executive Branch departments during the Reagan and Bush Administrations, my weeks in Broward County had been my first experience of local, retail electoral politics. I knew little about local election mechanics – especially in a state that wasn’t my home – and nothing of Florida election law, re-count procedures, or the tactics and practices that would be deployed in such situations. I’d obviously have a lot to learn; I just prayed that there would be experts from whom I could learn – instantly – and that I’d be up to whatever I’d be called upon to do. With a razor thin margin in the midst of a legal and political swamp, it was all too obvious that a rookie’s ‘screw up’, even on something minute or seemingly trivial, could have far-reaching and unpredictable repercussions.
I wasn’t waiting for long. Within an hour or so, a dozen or so men (yes, they were all men) walked into our little store-front shopping center office. We introduced ourselves. Two teams had just arrived — one from New York, headed by Brendan Quinn, the Executive Director of the New York GOP, accompanied by a bunch of great guys: Ken Curley and Andy Leider, Army veterans and reservists working together in a real estate development firm, and a few other New Yorkers, including a few lawyers. The other team was from Ohio, headed by Brian Hicks, then Chief of Staff for Ohio Governor Bob Taft, and Ohio GOP Executive Director, Tom Whatman.
All of this was all brand new to me – and also a little strange. Here we were, all out-of-staters, ‘parachuted’ into Florida to … well, I supposed … help the citizens of that state re-count their ballots. I wish I could say that it didn’t take long to find out why we were there, but it actually took all afternoon. Because that’s how long it took for someone — anyone — from the Florida or Broward GOP to show up!
One of my contacts in the Broward County GOP phoned and promised that someone would come at 1:00 PM to brief the teams on re-count law and procedures. Then it was 2:00 PM. Then the briefing was promised for 3:00 PM. A couple of us went and fetched lunch for everyone. The afternoon dragged on – pointlessly. At one point pent up frustration burst out; Brendan hurled a folding chair across the room, crashing into the back wall of the store, fuming at the locals at the top of his lungs for leaving everyone cooling their heels, accomplishing nothing, at such a crucial moment.
Finally, around 4:00 PM, someone from the Broward GOP showed up and gave a briefing on what was to happen. In each of the four counties where the Gore campaign had lodged challenges – Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and Ventura, all populous and all with heavy Democratic voting – there would first be a test recount of three precincts selected by the challenger. The results would be compared with the machine recount that had been automatically run under Florida election law in an election where the margin of victory was within 1% of the total balloting
The three-official Canvassing Board (a Democrat local judge, another Democrat local dignitary, and the long-serving county Supervisor of Elections, a Republican hold-over from the days when Broward had been a more typical southern county) would then vote on whether a hand re-count of the entire county was justified. If any discrepancy between the hand result and the machine result, extrapolated across the county’s other precincts, was too tiny to materially affect the county’s overall vote count, presumably the Canvassing Board would save the time and expense of a full recount, certify the machine tally, and report it to Tallahassee. The test count could be the end of our work, at least in Broward.
Then our team started asking questions – and I started learning. Where were the ballots – right now? Well, we were told, they were kept in the Supervisor of Elections warehouse near the railroad tracks, not far west of downtown Fort Lauderdale – and many miles from our little office. Where and when would this test re-count take place? In the same warehouse, on Saturday – the next day. Who – from our ‘side’ — was watching the warehouse? Well, no one, actually. How did we know that a procession of ethnically colorful individuals wasn’t carrying bags of supposed absentee ballots into the warehouse even now? Hmmmm…. We didn’t.
“The differences found between the machine recount results and the hand recount were too trivial to warrant a full recount”
So, I got my first assignment. Objectively, I only brought three assets to the ‘party’ in the Broward recount: the keys to our Sea Ranch Lakes office; the metaphorical ‘keys’ to the local volunteer recruitment base, from my earlier election work; and – since we were so understaffed, out-manned and out-gunned — a pulse! My first task was to organize shifts of local volunteers to watch the warehouse overnight – to note any unusual or suspicious activity. Not that anyone would be able to do anything about it – but anything and everything could conceivably become grist for protests, appeals and, ultimately, litigation.
I drove one of the team members past the warehouse so that we could visualize what we would need to operationally support the test re-count. Later, I passed by a couple of times during the night to look in on our volunteers – to make sure they were there, remind them of the importance of their (otherwise stupefyingly boring) assignment, and help them feel part of the team.
We quickly determined that we needed some kind of office adjacent to the warehouse from which we could operate for the test re-count. We came up with the idea of renting an RV – and I got my second assignment: find us an RV we could rent. Before I started combing the Broward phone directory for agencies that could provide what we needed, I first phoned my sister in Miami – who seemed to be connected to everyone in Florida.
Before I could locate a suitable vehicle in Broward, she had one lined up for us in southern Dade County. I put the rental on my personal credit card – the financial arrangements for this re-count were as make-it-up-as-you-go-along as everything else about it – and drove one of the team members down to Miami to pick it up. We got back to Broward with the RV probably around midnight – and I swung past the warehouse to look in on our volunteers. It had been a long Friday.
The next day – Saturday, the day set for the test count – involved a lot of waiting around while the local election officials got things organized. I made a trip with a couple of the team members down to an office tower in the heart of Fort Lauderdale where the offices of the principal law firm representing the local GOP were located to pick up some material related to Florida election laws and procedures. (A partner in the firm, I believe, was chairman or otherwise prominently placed in the local GOP organization.)
Finally, the time for the test count arrived and our team gathered around our RV parked near the Elections Supervisor’s warehouse. The RV turned out to be a sort of ‘useless precaution’; there really wasn’t anything operational for our team to coordinate from it. Only a couple of our team members were allowed as observers (reciprocally with Democrat representatives) inside the warehouse space where the test re-count was conducted by county election workers. The Gore campaign had selected three predominantly African-American precincts to count in which the original vote tallies were, like, two thousand or more votes for Gore versus around a hundred or less – certainly no more than a couple hundred – votes for Bush.
The examination of the ballots went on from the late afternoon into the evening. I spent the time with the rest of our team members, who weren’t admitted as observers, milling around between our RV, the sidewalk, and some corridor spaces just inside the warehouse – but outside the recount area – where we were permitted to circulate. Finally, word filtered out that all the ballots from the three precincts had been examined and the results reported to the Canvassing Board.
The tension – already high – stepped up perceptibly as we waited for those three officials to make their decision. We waited for some minutes – time seemed to stand still – and then came the announcement the Canvassing Board had decided not to order a hand recount of the entire county. The differences found between the machine recount results and the hand recount were too trivial to warrant a full recount – with votes found for Gore or Bush almost perfectly offsetting each other.
We were elated! Our team literally jumped for joy! We had ‘dodged the bullet’. One of the four Florida counties where Gore’s team and the Democrats had hoped to find enough votes that they could claim were for Gore – or enough Bush votes that they could throw out – to overcome Bush’s tiny lead had just been taken out of play.
But this happy result meant that ‘my’ re-count was almost certainly over. It wasn’t clear that I would be wanted or needed in Dade, Palm Beach or Ventura counties – so, having ‘answered the call’ and ‘done my duty’, I expected to be heading home — maybe in time for my originally scheduled ‘first day’ at the White House Writers Group after all.
Our team headed to downtown Fort Lauderdale to celebrate with a boozy late-night dinner at a steakhouse on the ground floor of one of the office towers. The New York and Ohio guys determined that they would head to Dade County the next morning — where the campaign needed them next, for the test count there – returning the RV in the process. Then I headed back to my guest house for my second – and last — night on the Florida recount.
“The life of a typical recount worker is a lot like life of a soldier in the Army – lots of standing around and waiting in between short bursts of intense, life-and-death struggle”
The next morning, I received a call from the campaign asking if there were any assets/ equipment that could be sent up to Palm Beach, where the grand-standing judge chairing the Canvassing Board there had eagerly pushed his county into a full-scale hand recount. Frankly, I wasn’t too clear on who actually owned such equipment as we had in our little Sea Ranch Lakes store-front office. I knew that the phone bank had been borrowed from the local GOP – or its rental financed by them – but I had no clue who owned all the folding chairs and tables. (Local campaign offices, at least then, were pretty low-tech affairs.) I was asked if I could pack up everything we didn’t need any more in Broward – which meant everything except the phone bank that was too bulky to move – and take it up to Palm Beach. So, with the help of one of our regular volunteers – who helped determine with the original equipment donors that it was OK — that’s what I did.
With our cars packed to the roof with folding tables and chairs, my volunteer and I caravaned up to Palm Beach and made our delivery. The GOP and the campaign had been battling with the local Canvassing Board already for several days over the re-count – the Democrat-driven Board determined to push through a full county re-count and the Bush campaign and GOP contesting their decisions in court. This led to a set of stop-and-start spasms of re-count activity in that county – with plenty of TV time for the judge.
The GOP Palm Beach recount team was installed on a vacant floor or two of an office building somewhere near the recount site. When the elevator doors parted, I stepped into an unbelievable scene. Men – mostly men – were sitting on the floor everywhere throughout this large, empty office suite, backs to the wall, old-fashioned flip-phones to their ears, yellow legal pads on their laps, papers and briefcases often spread around them on the floor. I didn’t see a stick of furniture anywhere – so my folding tables and chairs, once brought in and set up, would be a godsend. Hard-wired land-line phones were as scarce as .. well .. snowballs in Florida, and nothing like a desktop computer was to be seen anywhere. And these were the troops who were charged with defending George W. Bush’s razor-thin lead! What I saw added new meaning to improvised!
I promptly ran into Brad Blakeman (seen left), an old acquaintance from my days on Vice President Bush’s staff, who asked what I was doing. I related the results from Broward County. I told him I had just closed our last remaining Broward County office and brought everything we had there for his troops upstairs. He asked if I could stay and help with the Palm Beach County recount. ‘Of course’ was the obvious answer. I was vectored over to the re-count site – where I promptly joined the crew of re-count workers who were then standing around and waiting. A new legal challenge to the Palm Beach proceedings was being argued in court at that moment, so I happened to have shown up during another of those ‘breaks in the action’ that punctuated the whole Palm Beach recount.
Judging from the Florida recount, it seems that the life of a typical recount worker is a lot like life of a soldier in the Army – lots of standing around and waiting in between short bursts of intense, life-and-death struggle. And, grateful as our Palm Beach crew were for another ‘live, warm body’ who could help, I happened to arrive during a momentary ‘lull in the action.’
Which is just as well. Because, while I was standing around and waiting, my cell phone went off. It was an urgent call from one of the New York/Ohio team members. The Broward County Canvassing Board had just met – again – and this time decided to order a hand recount of the entire county, beginning at 3:00 PM that afternoon!
(In their Saturday decision, Judge Lee of the Broward Canvassing Board reportedly joined the County’s Supervisor of Elections in voting 2-to-1 against recounting the entire county in light of the test recount result. In the meanwhile, however, Katherine Harris, Florida’s Secretary of State, was seeking to lay a predicate for ‘guillotining’ the votes of the four counties where the on-going challenges had prevented the results being reported to Tallahassee by the deadline set in one of Florida’s two governing – and contradictory – election statutes.
But to do so, she had apparently been advised to warn the four delinquent counties by letter of the tardiness of their voting results and ask the reason they had not yet been certified to Tallahassee. Since that reason would perforce not be one of the few act-of-God-related reasons specified by statute as justifying late submission of certified results, the Secretary of State would then be justified, it was thought, in certifying the final Florida election result excluding the delinquent counties. This gave the Broward County Canvassing Board a reason to meet again – and an opportunity for Judge Lee to switch his vote, plunging the county into a no-notice county-wide recount!)
The New York and Ohio guys were roaring northward from Miami; I sped south from Palm Beach. We were to rendezvous at the Broward hurricane emergency command center out west in Plantation. We arrived and went straight into action.
Having no one beside ourselves at this point, our team members deployed as observers at the recount ‘tables’ — each consisting of two local, non-partisan scrutineers and an observer from each of the two major parties. So I found myself observing scrutineers examining ballots from some precinct or other at one of the tables, along with a young woman whose boss, she said, had given her the afternoon off to volunteer as a Democrat observer. The scrutineers went about examining the files of punch cards professionally and objectively. Only very rarely was there any question as to the voter’s intention, and neither my Democrat counterpart nor I had scarcely any occasion to second-guess the scrutineers’ determination.
Fortunately, the hastily ordered process meant that the handful of us in our New York/Ohio team were adequate to cover the few tables that the county election authorities were able to staff that afternoon, so we weren’t overwhelmed – yet. But when we ended the first day of county-wide recount – exhausted – we – or, specifically I – had to organize volunteers to come to the rescue and ‘staff’ the tables for the next day.
And, as they got better organized, the Broward authorities would open more tables and field more teams to scrutinize the ballots. Eventually, if our volunteers couldn’t keep pace with the number of tables the Broward authorities were staffing to scrutinize ballots, there would be tables with no Republican observer – but perhaps with a Democrat observer. The potential for mischief on a scale that could change the election outcome was obvious. So, that night, we had a team meeting at the hotel where most of our team members were staying to plan the next day – and I got busy on the phone, reaching out to our chief sources of volunteer recruitment for the campaign to rally volunteer observers for the recount – beginning bright and early the next morning.
“We can’t have people seeing ‘crime scene’ tape here!”
The next day, I took up my new position – on the sidewalk outside the hurricane emergency center – recognizing, greeting, registering and directing our local volunteers arriving to observe the recount. Everyone agreed it was the perfect job for me; after all, my comparative advantage was in recognizing and recruiting local volunteers, since I’d already been working with them for weeks. It was heartening to see again many volunteers I had come to know during the campaign walking up to defend George W. Bush in the recount effort.
Most were older, often long retired. Many were deeply religious – definitely upholders of traditional values of American society. They were coming as individuals – sometimes as couples, rarely more than four at a time — seeing themselves as performing their patriotic duty while defending the interests of their party and their candidate. It was heart-warming.
What was depressing, though, was looking across at my Democrat counterpart — like me, clipboard in hand — checking off a long, seemingly never-ending line of people, more or less of all ages, arriving to ‘volunteer’ as observers on the Democrats’ side. It was daunting – and enviable! Could they really outnumber our supporters that heavily? How were we going to compete with these waves of ‘volunteers’ on the other side?
It didn’t take long, though, to figure out that this was no accident. It turned out that the AFL-CIO had set up a reception center in a vacant storefront in the shopping center across the street and was bussing in union members – from how far away was anyone’s guess – whose employers must have obligingly ‘given’ them leave for the day. Talk about an unequal contest!
As the mid-day lunch break approached – and the parade of morning volunteers arriving to help had subsided – I went inside in time to witness a truly comical scene. The officials overseeing the re-count called a lunch break in this huge room filled with large tables and chairs, normally used by different specialized teams for emergency response situations. Now those tables were covered with boxes and stacks of punch-card ballots, some examined, some yet to be examined.
As scrutineers and volunteer observers got up from their tables, the question arose: what was to be done with all these ballots laying out in the open (admittedly in a closed room) while everyone was away taking lunch. Were they to be packed up and secured ‘backstage’ and then brought out again after lunch? If so, how would they be returned to the right tables and scrutineer teams, and how would the teams know how to pick up where they had left off? Remember: this was all being improvised – largely ‘made up as we went along’, since it was unprecedented on this scale.
The official overseeing the recount floor declared that the ballots would be left where they were and the county Sherriff’s deputies would seal off the area containing the tables, ensuring that no one entered that area or passed among the tables during the lunch breaks. After lunch, the teams would return to their places and resume.
Now, there was a press area with a huge plate glass window looking into the hurricane-emergency-center-turned-recount-hall. Camera crews could film the proceedings and correspondents could record their segments for the news, just as they would if covering a hurricane emergency. As the recount workers left their tables for lunch, the deputies began securing the area, wrapping wide, bright yellow tape emblazoned ‘CRIME SCENE – DO NOT CROSS’ around the entire perimeter, right in front of the cameras.
I was elated. Here was visual proof of exactly what our side had been contending about this whole process! Unfortunately, within minutes a local judge – someone whom I had met fleetingly earlier in this saga – came out from one of the back rooms, took in the scene, and ordered the deputies to rip down the ‘crime scene’ tape instantly, declaring, “We can’t have people seeing ‘crime scene’ tape here!” My own reactions was, ‘Why not?! It’s only the truth.
Back outside after lunch, checking in the afternoon volunteers, one of our team members came to fetch me. He asked, ‘Do you remember that girl who was at the table with you on the first day?’ – a day earlier. ‘Would you recognize her?’ Definitely, I assured him. He said, ‘Well, we think she’s upstairs right now pretending to be one of our volunteers and about to go in to the briefing’ (on recount procedures for ‘our’ volunteers).
I was, frankly, shocked. But, thinking back on it, I’m now shocked that I was shocked. By that stage of life, I should have had more than enough experience of skullduggery – in White House and inter-agency politics and in diplomacy – to appreciate that infiltration and ‘false flag’ operations were bound to be part of any desperate struggle. But I never thought that even our opponents would be bald or unprincipled enough to try such a stunt.
I went into the hurricane center and upstairs to where the afternoon volunteers were waiting for their briefing. I spied the young woman at once and confirmed that she’d been representing the Democrats the day before at a counting table with me. I asked my colleague how we were going to get her out of there. I was surprised – and, after a split-second’s reflection, tickled – with his answer: ‘We’re not.’ We were obviously going to try to catch the other side ‘red-handed’ trying to fiddle the recount from inside our own ‘lines.’ Splendid!
Unfortunately, we missed our chance. Though I was trying to stay out of sight, the girl apparently spotted me and – probably using some excuse like a bathroom break – lammed out of the center lickety-split! She knew she’d been ‘made.’ Later that afternoon, the team fingered another such culprit – this time a guy – pulling the same stunt. It would have been comforting to think that these two had become ‘instant converts’ to George W. Bush’s and the Republicans’ causes after watching our valiant struggles of the first few days. But it was painfully obvious that their motives were exactly the opposite.
We somehow managed to ‘cover’ all the tables the Broward election officials opened that day to scrutinize ballots, precinct by precinct, despite the fact that our volunteers could often stay for only a few hours or came and went at irregular times. But, by the end of the day, when our team met to plan the next day, we were exhausted. We met late in the evening in the corner of another huge, this time vacant room in the hurricane center — the New York and Ohio guys, me, and a young lawyer representing the Bush campaign who had been with us intermittently since the previous Saturday’s test count.
We had heard that the recount officials were planning to open still more ‘tables’ the next day. It occurred to me that this recount, at least in Broward county, was starting to resemble a casino operation – where the chief figure of merit, and of profitability, is ‘How many tables are we running?’ So again the question arose: how were we going to muster enough volunteers to ‘cover’ the observer positions that we needed at each table.
“He also spotted me and beat a hasty retreat into the locked and deputy-guarded back rooms”
From another perspective, this local operation was beginning to resemble Grant’s siege of Petersburg at the culmination of the Civil War. Just as Grant could exhaust and defeat Lee by continually extending his lines, stretching and thinning the outnumbered Confederates until they couldn’t hold their positions against a breakthrough or breach, so was our predicament manning the ‘tables’ with observers. We, of course, would have the option to object and protest re-counting being done at any table lacking a Republican observer – but that would be construed as trying to slow or hamper the recount!
As our exhausted crew – including the young lawyer – sat around in a circle pondering and discussing our dilemma, Brendan Quinn focused our discussion. He grabbed a metal-framed chair and flung it perhaps thirty feet across the vast open space, crashing it into a distant wall, as he bellowed, ‘Where the f—- is the goddam Florida party?! Where the f—- is the campaign?! We’ve been here for a week doing their work for them and nobody’s here to help us! If we had a goddam recount going on in New York or Ohio, would we let a bunch of people from Florida come up and run it for us?! Hell no!’
And glowering at the terrified young campaign lawyer across the circle from him, Brendan added for effect: ‘Well, I’ll tell you this: if there aren’t people here from the campaign tomorrow morning to help, my people and I are leaving!!!’ He probably went on to suggest what the campaign could do to itself – and how much he cared.. I can’t remember; I was still getting my mind around Brendan’s chair-throwing ploy. The young lawyer – who looked like he had just lost control of some important bodily functions – scurried off.
A pattern had started to emerge: home to my guest house and into bed at 2:00 AM; up by 6:30 AM to start it all over again. In the middle of one of those nights my cell phone rang. It was a dog-breeder from southern Pennsylvania. In September, my wife and I had chosen a new Cavalier King Charles Spaniel puppy. We had told the breeder that we would pick him up as soon as my campaign work in Florida was finished. She was calling to report that little Bentley – I had almost forgotten about him! — was doing fine and that she realized that I was probably busy – no fake! — so she would keep him for us until I got back from the recount. Whew! One less thing to worry about!
The days were starting to blur together. ‘Our’ volunteers arrived in their cars; ‘their’ volunteers arrived by the van-load. I checked them in or signed them in and they headed inside for a quick briefing on the recount procedures before being assigned to their tables to observe the scrutinizing of the ballots.
But this morning was different. There was a new face on the scene: a tall, broad-shouldered, sartorially elegant (and obviously prosperous) older, distinguished-looking Texan named English who had just flown in from Houston — obviously representing the Bush campaign, and equally obviously an intimate of Governor Bush himself. He asked me – as he asked every other member of our team – what we needed. I told him: from my vantage point, at least, we needed live, warm bodies who were energetic enough and bright enough to defend the campaign’s interests at the recount tables.
We got through that day, somehow, but already by the afternoon people started arriving – by the plane load – mustered, it seems, by the RNC. In rapid order, I met – and checked in as recount observers — the GOP Executive Directors of Maryland, New Jersey, and several other states, some Washington veterans like G.H.W. Bush appointee Peter Watson, and retinues of young men and, especially, young women volunteering to come down and defend George W. Bush’s narrow margin in Florida. And the flow kept coming the next morning.
Finally, we had some relief – at least on volunteer numbers, which was my main concern. Meanwhile, legal battling – which had been going on in parallel all along, at the county and state levels, preparatory to an eventual appeal to the Federal and Supreme Court levels, if it came to that – continued apace. On Thursday, November 16, as I was once again manning my post on the sidewalk outside our recount center, a young woman who was the GOP’s lawyer in Broward county – and who was pursuing another motion at the local court level to halt the recount on technical, legal grounds — came up to me and asked if I knew or recognized a certain official of the county’s elections apparatus. I did.
She had a subpoena for him and asked if I would walk it in to the hurricane center and serve it on him. She couldn’t, she explained, as she’d be recognized – and he would hide. I consented – but, on reaching the recount floor and spotting him, he also spotted me and beat a hasty retreat into the locked and deputy-guarded back rooms adjoining the recount floor. I hung around for a long time around the only access door to the area, intending to serve him when he came out – but he wasn’t coming out. I could occasionally catch a glimpse of him moving about ‘backstage’, but it was obvious that he wasn’t going to cooperate and come out as long as I was anywhere in sight..
Again, I was shocked – though perhaps I shouldn’t have been. I was told that this guy was a judge – and he was evading service of legal process??!! So I buttonholed my D.C. colleague Peter Watson, newly arrived so no one locally would recognize him, and asked him to meet me outside. There, I enlisted him to serve the subpoena and described the official we were looking for. A short time later, Peter returned with his ‘mission accomplished’ report. It was easy, he said. When his quarry stepped out from the backrooms, thinking ‘the coast was clear’, Peter stepped up to him and said, ‘Judge so-and-so?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘You’re served!’ and hit him with the subpoena.
“‘It would be fun and glamorous to work on the recount down in Florida, but not if it upsets my social schedule’”
Things were now – finally – settling into something like a routine. With assistance arriving from Washington and elsewhere, it was no longer such a desperate a close-run thing to have enough observers to man the ‘tables’ – so we were mostly keeping track of how many precincts had been hand counted, how many remained to be done, and how the disputed ballots were being adjudicated by the Canvassing Board members – a process that unfolded behind closed doors in the back rooms off the recount hall in the presence for lawyers for both campaigns.
When Friday’s counting was completed, a number of us headed down to Las Olas Boulevard – a street of shops and restaurants in Fort Lauderdale – for a semi-celebratory dinner. We had survived — and made it this far, with the help of the newly arrived ‘reinforcements.’ Sitting among several young volunteers from Ohio – obviously children of privilege – I was stunned to learn that many, if not most, were heading back to Columbus the following morning. The job wasn’t done – the counting would resume either the next day or Monday – and the election outcome still very much hung in the balance. They had put in barely two days’ effort.
But a couple of the young women, especially, had social engagements of their own or with their parents for Saturday night that they were determined not to miss. Once again, I was struck by the contrast between our Democrat opponents’ determination to win at any cost – seemingly whatever it took – and the dilettante-ish, ‘can’t be bothered’, ‘it would be fun and glamorous to work on the recount down in Florida, but not if it upsets my social schedule’ attitude of many of our new ‘reinforcements.’
I stayed, rostering volunteers and helping with any other assignments the team threw my way, until all the Broward precincts had been counted. Again, the last couple of days in Broward blended together. At one point, a court ruling was handed down – on some motion or another, I forget at which level – that left us momentarily elated. I let out a triumphant whoop — until one of the teammates reminded me that it was just one more ‘zig’ in the zig-zag courtroom dramas playing out at practically every level. This thing was still far from over.
I finally headed back to Washington on Wednesday, November 22 – the night before Thanksgiving. There were still some disputed ballots being adjudicated, as I recall, but that wrapped up shortly after my departure.
That might have been the end of ‘my’ Florida recount – but it wasn’t. Over Thanksgiving weekend, I watched the TV footage of the so-called ‘Brooks Brothers riot’ when a mob of young, well-dressed, buttoned-down GOP recount volunteers were filmed storming and pounding on the doors of Dade county’s recount center shouting ‘Let us in! Let us in!’ after country officials had (improperly) taken all the disputed ballots into locked back rooms with no observers present for … well, who knows what?!
I later learned, via a phone call with my old teammates, that a couple of them had ‘started’ the ‘riot’, protesting the officials’ improper actions. But they ducked out of sight and crawled under a table as soon as they realized that cameras were present, so the less-recognizable volunteers got the credit – and got immortalized on film. I missed those guys!
Quickly, the recounting wrapped up – and all the action shifted to the courts — and, of course, the media. The Florida Supreme Court had ruled against the Bush campaign, finding that the recount was proper and could proceed. Aspects of the Florida court’s decision attracted the U.S. Supreme Court’s first intervention. Though the Justices evinced little or no interest in the Bush campaign’s argument that the selective recount of four counties in Florida violated the ‘equal protection’ provisions of the Constitution for voters elsewhere in the state, other problematic aspects of the Florida court’s decision prompted the Supreme Court to send it back to Tallahassee for a ‘do-over.’
As it happened, roughly a week after Thanksgiving, I was back in Florida attending an annual conference on the Caribbean at which I had been a ‘regular’ for some years, when Florida’s Supreme Court handed down its ‘do-over’ response to the nine wise men and women in Washington. It ordered an immediate recount in all Florida counties, state-wide, of all the rejected/uncounted ballots ‘spit out’ (as defective or unreadable) by Florida’s punch card and readers and optical scanners. This decision, of course, was a legal ‘slap in the face’ to the U.S. Supreme Court — and a dream come true for Gore and the Democrats. (What other kind of gift would the elected, overwhelmingly Democrat judges of Florida’s Supreme Court give them?!)
It provided a license to the Democrat challenger to troll for ‘votes’ among all the defective/uncounted ballots, not just in the four counties originally challenged, but in all 67 — including 63 counties where the vote count had never been challenged! Who couldn’t find a couple of thousand punch cards that they could claim were Gore votes with a ‘fishing license’ of those proportions??!! (This aspect of the Florida court’s decision – highly selective and focused scrutiny of only some ballots statewide — finally ‘opened the door’ to the Bush campaign’s ‘equal protection’ argument before the U.S. Supreme Court – which eventually put an end to the recount charade. But that was off in the future and unknown – and the crisis was immediate.)
I realized instantly that the GOP faced an almost insurmountable problem. We had barely been able to staff – and keep from being overwhelmed – in a four-county recount. Now – instantly — we would have to staff mini-recounts (if only of the rejected/defective ballots) in all of Florida’s 67 counties at once. And, by now, almost all of our recount volunteers had gone home!
I phoned the RNC from Miami on a weekend morning, the instant I heard the Florida court’s decision, and sought to ‘report in.’ Here I was, an experienced hand from the previous month’s recount, already in the state. Where did they need me? Where could I help? I spoke with a somewhat befuddled young woman who, after putting me on hold to consult someone else, came back on the line. ‘Where are you?’ she asked. ‘Miami – that’s Dade county.’ ‘Is that anywhere near Pinellas county?’ came the question. ‘Well, not really. Pinellas county is Tampa. That’s across the state.’ ‘Well, we need people in Pinellas county. Can you get there?’ ‘Sure, I have a car. I’m on my way. But where am I going when I get there?’ I can’t recall whether she told me to head for Pinellas’s hurricane emergency center or whether she had someone local phone me with that tidbit, but within minutes I was roaring across Alligator Alley (I-75), headed for Florida’s west coast and up to Tampa.
I arrived at the center, found the GOP representative in charge and identified myself. I milled around outside the center for a few minutes, introducing myself to other GOP volunteers who had somehow materialized. It was a little bit, I imagine. like some scene from World War II or the Korean War: soldiers from different units and different fights finding themselves now in a new battle with new comrades, each asking where the others had fought previously and what units they had come from.
Everything was pretty chaotic. The Florida court’s decision had been announced just a few hours earlier and officials and would-be observers had scrambled to the center willy-nilly to try to comply. Eventually, I stepped into the room that would be used for counting just as officials were bringing out the boxes of defective/rejected ballots and placing them on a large table. It was by no means clear how this was going to be organized or conducted – and what our observer role was to be.
But – blessedly – there was a large screen TV also in the room – no hurricane center would be complete without one! – and it was tuned to one of the 24-hour news channels. And within seconds of stepping into that room – as the local officials had just started to lift the lids on some of the boxes of punch card ballots – the news flashed across the screen that the Supreme Court had just ordered a stay of further recount activity in Florida and had agreed to hear the case of Bush v. Gore anew! Whew! Another bullet dodged!
So I drove back to Miami and caught the last flight back to D.C. that night. Now, finally, ‘my’ recount was over.
Over the next several weeks – after the Supreme Court’s final decision in the Bush v. Gore case and the 2001 inauguration – the Washington Post ran a series of lengthy articles on the Florida recount, featuring lots of insider interviews from both camps. Unsurprisingly, much of the coverage focused on the activities and maneuvers, the strategies and counter-strategies, of the men at the top: Jim Baker, Ted Olson, Warren Christopher, David Boies and others. It all sounded so stratospheric, so intellectualized, so much like an elaborate game of chess, with move and counter-move, played out patiently with calm and calculating deliberation.
I don’t remember reading about the teams of guys from New York and Ohio – and perhaps other states, working in other Florida counties — whose efforts held up George Bush’s paper-thin margin in Florida – guys who made sure that, whatever else Gore and the Democrats might claim, they could never say that their candidate was ahead at any stage of the vote-counting in Florida. I used to liken the Post’s version of the Florida recount to an account of the World War II Battle of Iwo Jima – as told from Admiral Nimitz’s headquarters.
The fight looked somewhat different on the ground. And if it weren’t for the efforts of guys like Brian Hicks and Brendan Quinn and Tom Whatman and Ken Curley and Andy Leider, and the rest of our teammates, we might never have survived to witness their brilliant legal achievements ‘at the top.’