America's Closest Election
With Dan Balz
Washington Post Political Correspondent
Monday, March 12, 2001; 11:30 a.m. EST
The 2000 election was by far the most dramatic political contest in U.S. history. For 37 days, reporters investigated, pundits speculated, the campaigns litigated, Florida recounted and the courts ruled on who would ultimately be declared the winner in the presidential contest.
Washington Post political correspondent Dan Balz is one of the more than 15 Post reporters and researchers who investigated the election for the Post series and book chronicling the Florida recount. They interviewed dozens of participants including President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, as well as strategists and lawyers.
Balz was online to talk about the story, the book and the election on Monday, March 12.
The transcript follows.
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Dan Balz: Hello to everyone and thanks for joining today's chat. If you stumbled onto this page looking for Final Four tips, you're in the wrong place, but you're welcome to stay and chat. Lots to talk about with the publication of the book "Deadlock: The Inside Story of America's Closest Election," which was produced by the political staff of The Post. Away we go.
Santa Cruz, Calif.: Do you think the Supreme court was influenced by the threats from the Florida legislature and Jeb Bush to send their "own" slate of electors to Washington? It sounded like the Supreme Court wanted to prevent that from happening, as it would have been a political firestorm. Can you explain the court's thinking on that? If the legislature had done that what would have happened? It sounded like a really divisive and dangerous proposal.Actually it seemed like blackmail to me. It seems that the supreme court wanted to prevent such a national nightmare from occuring,so they blew the whistle and shouted, "Everyone out of the pool!"
Dan Balz: That's a very good question, which is my way of saying I don't really have a full answer for you. I think every institution of government and politics -- courts at all levels, legislators, the two campaigns, the two parties -- were all eyeing one another. Some day the story of what was going on in the Supreme Court will be told, but so far we don't know much about the inner workings.
I do know that President Bush worried about the intervention of the Florida legislature. Not that he would not have encouraged it, if necessary, to win the presidency. But I believe he thought that a legislative "solution" to the election would have put the greatest burden on him. He was, frankly, relieved that the Supreme Court ended the dispute. Former Vice President Gore hoped to the very end that the court would go his way, but some of his advisers were always pessimistic. Bill Daley, his campaign chairman, told him, "Forget it."
Alexandria, Va.: Dan,
Except for the facts that the Florida election was so close and Florida was the deciding state in a presidential election, are the voting irregularities that happened on election day in South Florida something both major political parties haven't seen in the past? Or were the party officials aware that something like this can and does happen every election?
Dan Balz: I can't recall an Election Day when we have not heard of irregularities in some city or state. They go with the territory. What the presidential race showed was both how fragile the system is and how much faith people generally have in a system that is given to human error.
That said, the Democrats heard about problems in Palm Beach County early on the morning of Election Day. The now infamous butterfly ballot was giving some voters problems and that was on the Democrats' radar screen early. But there was nothing they could do about it then, and ultimately nothing they could do about it after the fact. Given all the attention Florida received, politicians at all levels are now paying serious attention to reforms that would reduce mistakes and improve public confidence in the system.
Washington, D.C.: Dear Mr. Balz,
I heard on the radio coming into work this morning that Gore actually won Florida. What are the repercussions of these findings? Do you think the media will widely distribute this story? Why or why not?
Dan Balz: There are a number of questions along these lines. Here's what's happening. Florida has very good "sunshine-in-government" laws that allow an examination of the ballots. A number of news organizations have undertaken reviews. The Washington Post is part of a media consortium that is doing one of them. The Post group is examining the undervote ballots -- those where machine readers found no discernible vote for president -- and overvote ballots -- those where the machines concluded someone voted for more than one presidential candidate.
So far some partial results from two different reviews have been published. The Miami Herald recently reported that if the four South Florida counties targeted for recounts by the Gore campaign had finished their counting -- you'll remember that Miami-Dade shut down its recount -- that Bush still would have won more votes. Now there's another report by the Palm Beach Post that says if all the ballots with dimpled chad had been counted in Palm Beach County, Gore would have picked up enough extra votes to overcome Bush's lead.
From that, you can conclude that the "outcome" of the election depended on the standard used to determine a vote, and on that issue there was and will continue to be great disagreement among the partisans on both sides.
The Post's study will categorize the ballots -- how many hanging chad, how many dimpled chad, etc. -- and also attempt to measure whether three sets of independent eyes would see the same thing in each ballot. It's not likely there will be a definitive conclusion. Even if Gore seems to have won more votes, there's nothing to be done now that Bush has been sworn in. Most Americans accept him as legitimate, some do not. But he would have that hanging over his presidency.
Chicago, Ill.: What did the series tell us that we didn't already know?
Dan Balz: The series and the new book go well beyond what we were able to report in real time during the 36 day struggle (some say it was 37 days).
For starters, we did a good interview with Bush, in which he was very forthcoming about his feelings on Election Day. He believed he was going to win pretty easily and found with the first exit polls that he was in big trouble. What he had to say to us surprised even some of his closest advisers, who had not heard him talk about the Florida experience in any extended way.
There is rich reporting on the role Jeb Bush and his team played in Florida, showing how they helped George W. Bush lock up some of the best legal talent in Florida. We have wonderful reporting about the legal battles and the internal debates in both camps as they operated at warp speed. There is a marvelous scene late in book when Warren Christopher, who was the leader of the Gore forces in Florida and a former secretary of state, had to go see Laurence Tribe, the Harvard constitutional law expert, and tell him that Gore had decided to use superlawyer David Boies to make the final oral argument before the Supreme Court, rather than Tribe. There are other wonderful touches, including Bush shouting at some close friends at his ranch one night to turn off Saturday Night Live because he didn't want to hear the Bush imitation they were doing.
Much of the material in the book first appeared in the book, but frankly, it's a better read in book form. David Von Drehle wrote the narrative and did a fantastic job of stitching together the reporting from literally two dozen Post reporters.
Miami, Fla.: I watched the Civil Rights chairman yesterday on C-SPAN. She noted that Florida's secretary of state was less than prepared for questioning by the Commission, in spite of being notified in advance the areas of inquiry. She also noted that she had difficulties in getting Gov. Bush to cooperate and thus had to subpoena him for a time when it was inconvenient for him.
Nevertheless, I think this just adds to the perception of many Floridians, and Americans, that the outcome of the election was further complicated and less than fair with an inept secretary of state who was very partisan and that Jeb was likely playing a behind the scenes role even after he allegedly recused himself. Your thoughts?
Dan Balz: No question that Jeb Bush helped his brother and no question that Katherine Harris made decisions that were helpful to Bush also. I also suspect that if Al Gore had a brother and he had been governor of Florida, the tables would have been turned.
There's some confusion about Jeb's "recusal" after the election. He recused himself from his responsibilities on the state election board, but did not say he would not give advice and help to his brother.
The chair of the Civil Rights Commission chastised Harris when she testified before the committee. I'm not up to date on the efforts to get Bush to cooperate, but I think it would be pretty unprecedented for the president to appear before such a panel.
Alexandria, Va.: Do you think Florida is now -the- key state in presidential elections? I mean besides the obvious, it's the largest state that is competitive between the two parties. California and New York are safe for Democrats, while the GOP has a lock on Texas.
Dan Balz: I've talked to a senior Bush strategist who said recently, "Tell me who wins Florida in 2004 and I'll tell you who wins the election."
Florida was once thought to be reliably Republican, but it's been changing in recent years and now probably is a real swing state. At the same time, California, Illinois and New Jersey have moved toward the Democrats and Texas has moved strongly Republican. New York has been a pretty good Democratic state for a long time.
Arlington, Va.: Why did we see such a striking division between the big metro areas and rural America? This was quite different from the pattern in the Reagan era, when the GOP was doing very well in suburbia but sagging a bit in the heartland.
Dan Balz: This is one of the most fascinating things about the election results. The theory is that rural Americans in particular were disgusted by Bill Clinton's personal scandals and the values of his presidency. Therefore they voted strongly Republican. Urban areas long have been solidly Democratic. One other problem for Republicans is that suburban areas, which once voted strongly in favor of the GOP candidate, have become more competitive. If you look at the suburbs around Philadelphia, Detroit, even Chicago, the Democrats have steadily improved their performance since 1988, when Bush's father was elected. Same in a number of California counties, such as San Diego and even Orange County.
Tyler, Tex.: Dear Mr. Balz: Federal charges were recently filed against an employee of a company which did media work for the George W. Bush charging her with sending a Bush briefing book to Tom Downey of Al Gore's campaign. Political columnist Molly Ivins has speculated along with others that this action may have been a "campaign dirty trick" engineered by Karl Rove to trap the Gore campaign. What do you think will be the outcome of the controversy? Thanks.
Dan Balz: My hunch is that the investigation will end with the young woman who worked for Bush's media firm. From the beginning, she was the focus of the investigation and I don't know what other evidence exists that might implicate others.
Arlington, Va.: I think you have written before that most of the press pool (and most in the Gore camp as well) knew in their hearts that Bush would prevail in the end, from election night onwards. My questions are, first, when do you believe Al Gore himself first -knew- he was not going to prevail, and second, what was his primary motivation for continuing the contest after that realization? Was he doing it primarily with an eye to 2004, or because he hoped for a miracle, or to hobble the Bush Administration from the start, or because he truly believed that it was worthwhile to "fight the good fight" no matter what the eventual chances?
Dan Balz: I think I would disagree that everyone knew Bush would prevail. Put it this way: the person in the lead on election day is in a stronger position in any recount and that helped Bush. Also he had some built-in advantages because of his brother and the fact that Republicans had a majority in the Florida Legislature. But I think Gore genuinely believed that he had won more votes in Florida -- and given the fact that he did win the popular vote nationally that wasn't a surprising conclusion -- and that, if he could get a full recount in those four counties, he would prevail. I think he believed that until the very end, when the Supreme Court effectively shut down the counting. I don't think it had anything to do with 2004 or with trying to hobble Bush as president. If he had that motivation, he never would have called Bush to concede on election night. I think he thought he could win.
Moraga, Calif.: Why were the numbers from the first recount more different than the experts believed they would be? Many counties reported net differences of several hundred votes while experts were predicting swings of only single or double digits. Even counties that did not use punch cards were reporting significant differences.
Is anyone looking through all the votes (not merely under and over votes) to see if there could have cheating going on in the count?
Dan Balz: This is one of the real mysteries of the election recount. Normally the machine recount pretty much validates the initial count. In this case, Gore picked up quite a few votes -- giving him and his troops more confidence that a hand recount would show he actually won the election. But I don't think anyone is trying to look at all the ballots.
Portland, Ore.: What fascinated me about the whole post-election phase was how nakedly political the courts appeared to be. The Democratic-appointed Florida Supreme court twice overturned lower court rulings in favor of Gore and the largely Republican-appointed federal Supreme Court came in with the last word for Bush. I'm not a lawyer, but it seemed to me the only precedents being adhered to were the justices personal political preferences. Do you think this has damaged the view of the courts in the eyes of Americans? Or was the underlying political nature of the courts just being exposed more?
Dan Balz: I don't know how much, if any, real damage the courts sustained because of Florida. Certainly it made more Americans suspect they are politically driven bodies. There's the old saying that the courts follow the election returns, meaning the justices are well aware of the political currents flowing at any given time. In this case, the critics say the courts determined the election returns.
Houston, Tex.: If Gore had called for a complete count of all the undervotes and overvotes statewide instead of just four counties, how would the PR battle have played out? Would the Bush response have been any different?
Dan Balz: This is one of the most significant "what if" questions about Florida. In hindsight, Gore probably would have been better to ask for a statewide recount. But nobody knew this battle would last as long as it did. At the time Gore had to make the decision, he and his advisers feared they would lose the PR battle by asking for such a recount. They did not think public patience was as great as it turned out to be.
Bethesda, Md.: Some people have said that it is almost certain that more people went into the voting booth planning to vote for Gore than for Bush. That Gore only lost because of technical issues: butterfly ballot, inexperienced black voters in Jacksonville, etc. Do you agree?
Dan Balz: If what we have heard about Duval County, where thousands of ballots were thrown out because of apparent voter error, is true, it's likely that more people went to the polls intending to vote for Gore. Democrats blame themselves for not doing a better job of educating first-time voters about the intricacies of the ballot. But I wouldn't call those technical issues.
Mt. Rainier, Md.: The winners and losers of the Florida precincts seem to depend very much on who is doing the counting and how they're doing the counting. Is there a list yet that gives the results from these different organizations, and how they did the count?
Dan Balz: No full results yet. The Post consortium, which includes a lot of other major news organizations, probably won't have anything until sometime in late April. It's a slow process.
Silver Spring, Md.: What effect do you think the 2000 election will have on Jeb Bush's chances for re-election in 2002?
Dan Balz: Jeb Bush will probably have a tough reelection battle, although it's not yet clear who his opponent will be. No matter who it is, the Democrats will be united and energized in 2002 in Florida and there will be a huge amount of money and interest in that race.
Greenbelt, Md.: I am baffled by the recount procedure(s) used by the Palm Beach County election canvassing board. As I understand it, the majority of board members were Democrats, but they chose to use a more stringent standard for recounting the "undercounted" votes that neighboring Broward County. Also, the board mysteriously took the Thanksgiving holiday off and as a result were just late in reporting their revised total to the Florida secretary of state. One thought is the board felt pressure from the Republican Party mob, which included such luminaries as Bob Dole, outside the vote counting facility and succumbed to this pressure. I also found it curious that Judge Sauls referred to the judge from the canvassing board as a "great American" during his court testimony. Any reaction, thoughts on this matter?
Dan Balz: Palm Beach was a great frustration to the Democrats for the reasons you cite. But why they operated as they did, I cannot tell you. The Democrats repeatedly went to court to get the canvassing board to adhere to a less rigorous standard, but my recollection is that the prior standard said dimpled chad should not be counted as votes. I think they took Thanksgiving off because they figured they could get close enough to finishing the count that Katherine Harris would give them the extra hours to finish. She turned out to be the enforcer on the 5 p.m. deadline. And I well remember when Judge Sauls referred to Judge Burton as "a great American." I think the Gore team knew where that decision was heading when they heard that -- if not well before.
Somewhere, USA: Much has been written about the media's unofficial recount going on in Florida. My question is why there hasn't been any effort, much less media attention, to fully count absentee ballots in the 49 other states, that I understand were not counted because they could not have affected the election results. In California alone, I am told there are almost a million uncounted absentee ballots. Given the fact that Bush did very well among those absentee ballots that were counted, shouldn't he be interested in having these votes counted so as to whittle down the 537,000 popular vote plurality that Gore has, and thus help counter what is becoming a perpetual Democratic talking point?
Dan Balz: I keep hearing about these uncounted absentee ballots in California but I don't believe it's true. Some Republicans made a reference to this immediately after the election, but I believe it was simply a way to suggest that Bush still might win the popular vote. I'm virtually certain California counted its absentee ballots and that Gore still won the state handily. If those absentee votes were still out there to be counted and might give Bush a popular vote victory, you can bet he and his folks would be pushing for it.
Grand Rapids, Mich.: As I recall, the "butterfly ballot" used in Palm Beach County was designed by a Democrat, and approved beforehand by both parties for use in the election. It is my understanding it was also found to be a legal ballot.
What is the point of the Palm Beach Post coming out with a story of how Gore would have won the election by some 6,000 votes if those who planned to vote for him had actually done so? Is it to simply perpetuate the argument that Gore should really have won the election?
Dan Balz: The Palm Beach Post is doing what other news organizations are doing and is well within its rights to do so. What they've said is, if you use a specific standard, Gore would pick up enough votes to overtake Bush. But as I mentioned earlier, that standard is much in dispute. I don't think the paper is trying to take sides here.
California, Md.: Why is there so much resistance to requiring ID to vote? As I understand it, Florida has been plagued with voter fraud in the past, and showing ID seems to be a reasonable way to make sure people aren't paid to vote multiple times.
Dan Balz: I'm not sure there is real resistance to showing an ID. It's when a person has been wrongly purged from the voting rolls or is told he or she has to vote at a different location or other things like that that showed up or is asked to show many ID cards that creates a backlash against the system. The goal ought to be to make it as easy as possible for people to vote and on that point Republicans and Democrats would agree.
Dan Balz: Thanks to everyone who submitted a question. Lots of good ones today. We can continue this discussion for a long time. Unfortunately that's all the time we have for today. Best to all.
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