So maybe history isn’t always written by the winners.
In the fall of 2001, after George W. Bush mounted a pile of debris at ground zero and came up with one brilliant rejoinder to a skeptic’s taunt, the prevailing public attitude toward the previous year’s disputed election was: So what? The guy who was supposed to win won, and there was probably more than enough malfeasance to go around anyway.
Back in those days of ubiquitous American flag bumper stickers, a movie like Recount, director Jay Roach’s take on the 2000 Florida recount, would have been greeted with cries of disloyalty. The film, which made its HBO debut on Sunday night, presents what can accurately be labeled a Gore-friendly chronicle of the legal maneuverings that settled the election.
But it is also fact-friendly. There was never really any doubt that more Floridians went to the polls on Election Day 2000 to vote for Al Gore than for Bush. The “butterfly ballot”—designed, as Bush partisans like to note, by a Democratic election official—siphoned around 15,000 Gore votes to Pat Buchanan, and hundreds of black voters were denied ballots after being incorrectly branded felons and purged from the rolls. Bush’s official winning margin in the state, of course, was 537 votes.
This is only a moral argument, though. Recount reminds us that even if you forget about the Buchanan votes and disenfranchised voters, the facts still point to a probable Gore victory in Florida.
The key to a Gore win would have been a full statewide recount (by hand) of every uncounted ballot—both undervotes (ballots from which no vote was registered by machine) and overvotes (where multiple votes were registered). Gore, after initially requesting recounts in only four counties, ultimately persuaded the state’s Supreme Court to order a statewide recount. This is the order that the U.S. Supreme Court eventually invalidated, ending the statewide recount and handing the election to Bush.
Gore, fixated as he was on dimpled and hanging chads, had only been seeking a recount of undervotes, and as it turns out, this would have been insufficient to reverse Bush’s advantage—the conclusion of a media consortium that reviewed the disputed ballots in 2001. But here’s the catch: the Circuit Court judge who was overseeing the recount has since stated that he was inclined to demand that overvotes also be considered by county officials and that he had scheduled a meeting on the subject on the very day that the Supreme Court cut off the recount. The same media consortium also concluded that—under any ballot-counting standard—Gore would have prevailed in a statewide recount that considered overvotes.
All of this makes the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that much more galling. The court killed the recount on the grounds that it violated the Constitution’s equal protection clause, since different counties were using different standards to count ballots. Fair enough. But in the same breath the court also gave the state of Florida just two hours—the December 12 deadline previously imposed by the Florida Supreme Court—to devise a standard and to conduct a recount. What’s worse, this came two days after the court had issued a stay, suspending the in-progress recount so that arguments could be heard. Had the court allowed even two days for a recount, Gore would very likely have won the presidency, since we now know that the overvotes probably would have been considered and that he would have prevailed under any counting standard that included overvotes.
If there’s one flaw with Recount, it’s that it leaves the viewer with the impression that Gore would have reaped the lion’s share of “new” votes from the counting of disputed ballots. As the consortium report demonstrates, this is not the case. With only undervotes counted—the standard that Gore’s team champions in the movie—Bush would still have won. And even with overvotes included, it would still have been a squeaker, although Gore would have been the victor.
The movie is spot-on, though, in documenting the procedural injustices that felled Gore, whether it’s the notorious Katherine Harris throwing the full weight of her office behind Bush’s effort, the state Republican House Speaker (and now Congressman) Tom Feeney scheming to award Bush the state’s 25 electoral votes via an arcane legislative procedure, or Republican activists literally shutting down a recount in Miami-Dade County. And there’s the U.S. Supreme Court itself. As Michael Whouley (played by Denis Leary), Gore’s field director, observes at the end of the film: Wouldn’t they have gone along with the recount if it had been Bush requesting it?
None of this, of course, is new. All of the details of the legal fight laid out in the film (minus some backroom scenes that were almost certainly spruced up for dramatic effect) are a matter of public record. So is the media consortium’s 2001 review of the disputed ballots. And is there a person in America who isn’t aware that Katherine Harris was Bush’s campaign chairwoman in Florida?
Earlier this decade, not many people—outside of the irate Democratic base—cared much about any of this. For most Americans, the choice between Bush and Gore in 2000 was the ultimate lesser-of-two-evils dilemma. Even though a few hundred thousand more voters backed Gore than Bush, there was no deep personal loyalty to Gore among the general public once he began pursuing a recount. From the moment he retracted his concession to Bush, public opinion—and pressure from his own party’s leadership—worked against him, even though the facts of the dispute almost all favored him. People didn’t like Gore to begin with, and the caricature of a sore loser was easy for them to buy into.
And so it seemed, earlier this decade, that Bush had succeeded in writing his version of history. The public rallied to his side after 9/11, followed him into war and reelected him in 2004—and his brother resoundingly won a second term as Florida’s governor in 2002. When the media consortium’s report was released in November 2001, the media, sensing the public’s mood, focused mainly on the finding that Bush would have prevailed under the formula that Gore had advocated—largely ignoring the evidence that more people had voted for Gore than for Bush.
Howard Kurtz, the Washington Post’s media reporter, summed up the prevailing mood well when he wrote about the consortium’s report: “How many people still care about the election deadlock that last fall felt like the story of the century—and now faintly echoes like some distant Civil War battle?”
Recount would have been an unwelcome arrival in that climate, pilloried as an unpatriotic product of Hollywood leftists oozing sour grapes. But that was before Bush ordered an invasion of Iraq under now-discredited pretenses. It was before Katrina, before the home mortgage crisis, before $4 gasoline—before this nation gave up on its president.
The facts have remained the same for eight years. But only now do Americans embrace the conclusion that the wrong guy became president in 2001.