Everything was fairly normal in the 2000 presidential election until about 10 p.m. Eastern on Election Day.
Television networks had called the state of Florida for Vice President Al Gore, a critical win that seemed to pave his path to the presidency. Results in other states hinted at a close race; Gore's Florida win slotted a critically large chunk of electoral votes into his column.
But about 10 p.m., those electoral votes were wrenched back out. The initial calls for Florida had been premature, based on exit polling in a stunningly close contest that was undercut as the votes were counted. The final official margin of victory in the state was 537 votes, 0.009 percent of the nearly 6 million cast. It was a close enough race that guessing the winner from exit polling amounted to a coin toss as it turned out, and the networks had guessed wrong. The toss-up state was once again a toss-up.
This was the first moment at which the 2000 election really got weird, as votes were counted and it became apparent that the result in a critically important state might be in flux. The situation 16 years ago was entirely different from the situation now, a situation in which Republican nominee Donald Trump said during the third presidential debate that he would not necessarily concede the race if he lost, and that he would keep the country in “suspense.” As is often the case when Trump says controversial things, his supporters have seized on a nonequivalent scenario in his defense. In this case, it's Gore's response to the tumult of 2000 that's being used as an example of another time that a presidential candidate has refused to accept the results of an election.
It's not an apt analogy.
On Election Night in 2000, returns kept coming in in Florida. The new tallies came heavily from the western panhandle of the state, a more conservative region that was still voting as the initial call was made. The results heavily favored George W. Bush, and by about 2 a.m., the networks were ready to make another call: Bush won the state. By then, it was pretty clear that winning Florida meant winning the presidency. (Results in Oregon and New Mexico were also up in the air, but they had only 12 electoral votes between them.) Florida was the game, and it looked as though Bush had won. Gore called Bush to concede and prepared to address his supporters.
The tallies were so close, though, that as more results came in, it became obvious that it would be difficult to determine the winner of the state without a recount. Gore retracted his concession and bailed on his speech to his supporters. According to U.S. Election Atlas's thorough timeline of the 2000 race, the margin in Florida the morning after Election Day was (fittingly) about 2,000 votes. Florida was too close to call, and without calling it, there was no winner. The outcome was unclear.
Trump's campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, told CNN after the debate Wednesday that Trump would accept the results because he would be the winner. Should that not happen — and the polls strongly suggest that it won't — Conway said that “absent widespread evidence of abuse and irregularities,” Trump would concede. The problem with that, in part, is that Trump himself has been whipping up the idea that abuse and irregularities are occurring, something that Gore never did. Had Gore been presented before the 2000 election with a scenario in which the results in a key state were too close to call, he'd no doubt have said that he'd need to see the results in the state before conceding. This year, Trump is creating the impression of a nightmare scenario for which there is no evidence and using that scenario as a threatened out should he be defeated in November.
After the initial returns in Florida 16 years ago, things got messy. A machine recount narrowed Bush's lead to about 300 votes. There were questions about timelines and process. There was a confusing ballot used in Palm Beach County that was blamed for costing Gore some votes. There were punch-card ballots used in which not all of the holes were punched cleanly, meaning that the people doing the recount had to have certain rules about how much of the “chad” — the bit of paper that should have been punched out of the hole — could remain attached for the vote to still count. As the recount dragged on, lawyers got involved.
The core question during the weeks that followed the initial Florida result was how accurately the intent of the state's voters could be captured. When a ballot was atypical — with a “hanging chad,” say, or a confusing result — what rules governed its inclusion? The debate was not about fraud and it was not about the integrity of the system. It was about how the system responded to a test of its mechanics, not a challenge to its legitimacy.
Overseas ballots came in, extending Bush's lead. Normally the results of an election are wide enough that such a small number of ballots won't affect things. That wasn't the case in 2000 in Florida. The two sides each filed lawsuits, Bush to include military ballots that were rejected for being completed improperly and Gore to continue hand recounts.
By now, it was December and the results were still in flux. It's easy to gloss over the aftermath in Florida now, from a distance of 16 years, so we must note that the process was hard-fought and acrimonious. And lengthy: Counting ballots by hand is time-consuming and the legal process is often slowed. A month and a day after votes were cast, the Florida Supreme Court mandated a statewide recount of the ballots, a victory for Gore. His last. Bush's team appealed to the Supreme Court, which, on Dec. 12, rejected the recount on a 5-4 vote. Out of legal options, Gore had a choice: continue to fight in the court of public opinion or concede.
“Other disputes have dragged on for weeks before reaching resolution,” he said in his speech. “And each time, both the victor and the vanquished have accepted the result peacefully and in the spirit of reconciliation. So let it be with us. I know that many of my supporters are disappointed. I am, too. But our disappointment must be overcome by our love of country. And I say to our fellow members of the world community: Let no one see this contest as a sign of American weakness. The strength of American democracy is shown most clearly through the difficulties it can overcome.”
Gore's fight was a fight over counting ballots, not over an allegation that the election itself was unfair. There were disputes about the intent of voters and some insincere rhetoric on both sides, but there was no question that the system, however flawed, was working the way it was supposed to. There was no question that Gore had won more votes nationally, but there was also no question that the 2000 election was one of the closest in history and that the result was the will of almost precisely half of the voting public. It was a test case for the strength of our democracy, as Gore noted, and we passed — however frustrating to Gore and his supporters then and in the years that followed.
That's not the fight that Trump is engaged in now.