What Happened The Last Time An Election Was Disputed

Sep 18, 2020

Will we know if Joe Biden will be the 46th POTUS on the night of the Nov. 3 election, or will Donald Trump be in place for another four years?

Given the knock-down, drag-out fight this campaign is becoming, and the fact that there will likely be millions of mail-in absentee ballots that won't be counted until weeks after election night, the prospects of a drawn-out election battle that could go on for some considerable time is a distinct – and not very appealing – possibility.

It's happened in the not-so-distant past – 2000, to be exact, when Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore battled for over a month after Election Day, only to result in Bush's election as the 43rd president decided by a handful of flimsy punch card ballots in Florida and a Supreme Court decision that put an end to Florida's marathon recount.

It was a long month, with much anxiety and even more uncertainty over which man would take the oath of office at the U.S. Capitol on January 20, 2001.

There was even much speculation that the contested election might not be over by Inauguration Day.

I was in the newsroom of the Cincinnati Enquirer that night, trying to cover state and national politics by phone and on a clunky, museum-piece version of the internet, which seemed fine back then but would frustrate the internet user of today.

Most reporters and editors in newsrooms around the country were anticipating a close presidential election and a late night and early morning before the question of the presidency would be resolved. But we had no idea of what was to come.

The early evening was fairly mundane, particularly in Ohio. Republican Mike DeWine, now Ohio's governor, was on his way to an easy re-election bid for a second U.S. Senate term. In Southwest Ohio, a brash young Democrat named John Cranley was clearly headed to lose his aggressive bid to unseat Rep. Steve Chabot in Ohio's 1st Congressional District.

The pre-election polling in Ohio tended to favor Bush, although not by a huge margin. Neither the Bush nor the Gore campaign could seem to decide whether Ohio was to be an important swing state or not.

Fairly early in the evening, at about 7:50 p.m., right before the polls were closing in the heavily Republican Panhandle region of Florida, all of the major broadcast and cable networks declared that Gore would win Florida, based on exit polling.

That's when the carnival ride began.

About two hours later, all of the networks had retracted on calling Florida for Gore and put it back in the undecided column.

At that point, as I washed down election night pizza and Chinese food with what seemed like gallons of black coffee, the landscape across the nation came into focus and it became clear that the presidential election would likely come down to Florida.

The presidential winner, of course, needed to reach 270 electoral votes to a win.

Ohio, by midnight, had already gone to Bush by a 165,000 vote margin out of 4.5 million cast. A fairly close result.

I have always believed that if Gore had not seemingly given up on Ohio in the last month of the campaign and had been here in person – and often – he could have eked out a win in Ohio. That would have made the whole Florida recount immaterial, because having Ohio would have given Gore 287 electoral votes.

But he didn’t.

Instead, we were left with what appeared to be a dysfunctional election system in Florida deciding who the next president of the United States would be.

By about 2:30 a.m. (all of us on election duty at the Enquirer had given up on all hope of going home that night), the networks did another reverse course and declared Bush the winner with 85% of the Florida vote counted.

By 4:30 a.m., the pizza and the Chinese food was pretty much gone and what was left didn't look very appetizing. And, in Florida, the results from three heavily Democratic counties – Broward, Miami Dade and Palm Beach – had been counted and Bush's lead in Florida had shrunk to under 2,000.

By that time, Gore had already privately conceded the election to Bush, but, in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, withdrew his concession.

As dawn broke, the Florida secretary of state said a mandatory recount by machine would be conducted the next day. That gave the media around the country a chance to go home, change clothes and get some sleep.

But that mandatory recount was done by machine on Wednesday and Bush's lead dropped to just over 300 votes.

A week or so later, a count of the overseas ballots that had come in increased Bush's lead to 930 votes. But a very good analysis by the New York Times showed clearly that about 680 of those ballots should not have been counted, for a variety of reasons – improper signatures, late postmarks, etc.

The Gore campaign then asked for hand counts in Broward, Miami Dade, Palm Beach and Volusia counties.

Remember the images of election officials holding up punch card ballots, examining dimpled ballots, hanging chads and trying desperately to determine the intent of the voter on disputed ballots.

It was during that time that Terrace Park's Rob Portman – then a U.S. House member and now the junior senator from Ohio – was part of the Bush team in Florida witnessing the recount and making sure that Bush's interests were being represented.

Portman and I had a number of phone conversations during that time, often when he was on scene monitoring the recount.

I remember one early evening when I had stopped by the old Keller's IGA grocery in Clifton after work. My phone rang while I was having ham and turkey sliced at the grocery store's deli. It was Portman, on a rather bad cell connection. I'll never forget the looks from my fellow shoppers as I yelled into my cell phone about hanging chads.

On Nov. 26 – 19 days after the election – the Florida state canvassing board declared Bush the winner of Florida's 25 electoral votes by only 537 votes.  

The U.S. Supreme Court, on Dec. 12, overruled a Florida Supreme Court ruling requiring another statewide recount. That was effectively the end of the case.

Bush had been elected with the smallest number of Electoral College voters in history – 271, only one over the minimum needed.

Gore could have tried to pursue the case with a vote of the Congress. But, with both the House and Senate controlled by Republicans, he did not and accepted defeat.

Could some scenario like this play itself out in November?

Quite possibly, should Trump end up on the short end of the Nov. 3 election night vote.

The difference between Trump and Gore is that, clearly, Trump might not be likely to graciously step aside if courts rule against him.

  Read more "Tales from the Trail" here.