The 2000 US Presidential election was a mess. Or at least the end of it was! Albert (Al) Gore was facing off against George W. Bush. Gore was a Democrat and the then-Vice President, while Bush was a Republican and the Governor of Texas. On election night the vote was neck-to-neck, the country was at the edge of their seats, and… it stretched on. And on. Until the Supreme Court had to step in 36 days later. That led to Bush becoming the 43rd President, by a very small margin.
The Electoral College
The US election is decided indirectly, via the Electoral College (this isn’t a “college” in the usual sense, but just a group of people with a shared task). You can read more about it at this link, but the short of it is that each state has a certain number of electors in the Electoral College (larger states have more). For most states, whichever candidate gets the most people voting for them in that state gets all of that state’s Electoral College votes (though some states split their Electoral College votes).
The president isn’t decided by the total number of people who vote for them nationally (this is called the popular vote), but by whoever gets a majority of the Electoral College votes. These two typically match. But sometimes, as happened in 2000, they don’t. The 2000 election wasn’t the first time this occurred: for example, the 1876 election was also extremely close, which is a whole other story.
On November 7, 2000, Americans watched the major news networks as votes were counted throughout the nation. Most of the states’ totals came in without a problem. But it was obvious that this was a very tight race, and three states were particularly close: New Mexico, Oregon, and Florida. Florida was the main nightmare, caused by two things: it had 25 electoral votes, and news stations kept incorrectly calling it for one candidate and then the other! It became so complicated that Gore called Bush to concede, believing he had lost. When the news changed yet again, Gore called Bush back to say that the race was still on and to take back his concession. But one thing soon became clear: the election was so close that whoever won Florida would win the entire election and become President.
Automatic Recount in Florida
Finally, once all the votes were in, George W. Bush had won Florida. But this was only by a very tiny margin, so Florida had an automatic recount. The recount still proclaimed Bush the winner… but only by the small lead of 537 votes. Al Gore wasn’t happy. Both Gore and Bush went to the court system, either challenging the vote or claiming the vote should be upheld.
Vote-Counting Goes to Court
The Florida Supreme Court sided with Gore, saying there should be a manual recount. Gore had some hope that the vote could end up going his way, since he’d just won the national popular vote by a small margin. But, the popular vote doesn’t count for anything: it’s all about the Electoral College. Bush disagreed with the Florida Supreme Court and escalated this to the US Supreme Court, which is where things really got interesting. Essentially, Bush wanted the court to say that the recount was over (making him President). Gore wanted the Court to uphold the Florida Supreme Court’s ruling (which would have continued the recount, giving him a chance to win).
There’s a bit more history behind this. The US judicial system has always faced the problem of how to balance state rights with Federal rights. If the US Supreme Court makes a decision, all 50 states have to abide by it (even if it invalidates their own laws, which the Supreme Court wants to avoid). For this reason, the US Supreme Court is extremely careful about what it rules on. In fact, it’s only supposed to make decisions based on whether they believe something fits or doesn’t fit with the US Constitution. Overall, conservative judges are more unlikely than the liberals to overrule the state courts.
The Supreme Court Applies the Constitution
In this 2000 Supreme Court case, Bush argued (among other things) that the Equal Protection Clause in the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution had been violated, since the counties in Florida manually recounted their votes in different ways. The Equal Protection clause requires that everybody in similar circumstances should be treated by the law in the same way.
The Supreme Court deliberated over two things. First, had the Equal Protection Clause (and thus the US Constitution) been violated? The Court thought so, as the justices voted 7-2 that it was unconstitutional. The second, bigger issue was: As the recount was unconstitutional, what should they do about it? This was a massive issue.
Due to all the time the recount and the court cases had taken, the US Supreme Court only ruled on this on December 12, 2000. But all states had to certify their electoral votes by December 18th, and this was specifically required by Florida law. (Remember that Inauguration Day was looming, on January 20.) So the Court determined that there wasn’t enough time for a new recount done the same way everywhere in Florida.
As a result, the Supreme Court ruled (by a 5-4 vote) that the recount had to stop since it could not be completed in a constitutional manner by the legal deadline; the case was sent back to the Florida Supreme Court. But the only thing the Florida court could have considered at this point was whether he deadline could be invalidated, and Gore chose not to pursue that.
The effect of all this was that Bush won the state of Florida. And, having gotten Florida’s electoral college votes, George W. Bush won the Presidency with 271 electoral college votes nationally (compared to Gore’s 266). He needed 270 to win, so you can see how close this was.
The ruling was controversial as some people thought that the Supreme Court justices were biased by their political views (conservative or liberal), although each justice cited normal legal reasoning for his or her decision.
The 2000 Presidential election was virtually a tie, and it could have gone either way. Furthermore, even some of the liberal judges agreed that the recount was unconstitutional. But there wasn’t enough time for a better solution.
And, of course, no one knows whether a full recount done uniformly throughout Florida would have ruled in Al Gore’s favor or maintained George W. Bush’s victory.