Sixteen years ago, hanging chads sent the nation into a spiraling constitutional crisis. For a month after the November 7, 2000 election, America panicked. Would Texas Gov. George W. Bush or Vice President Al Gore become the new commander-in-chief? Election night ended in a virtual tie. Bush had the edge, though. His younger brother Jeb was governor of Florida, the most contested state. And Republicans ruled the U.S. Supreme Court.
In the end, the high court stopped a recount of Sunshine State ballots with perhaps the worst decision in that institution's history. The warring sides are still fighting about it today. And now a repeat is on the horizon. Though Barack Obama narrowly claimed the state in 2008 and 2012, Floridians again look like the decision-makers. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are in a statistical tie in the state.
As of last week, the average of major polls showed Clinton clinging to a two-point lead, within the margin of error, in Florida. Our subtropical stomping ground was the closest (as well as most populous) among the so-called swing states after Iowa. So the drama is high. With the presidential election only seven weeks away, New Times returned to the major players in the 2000 drama to see where they are now and how they reflect on one of the most contentious moments of our nation's 240-year history. Will the great recount repeat after the polls close November 8? Whom are these most political of Americans supporting? Read on to find out.
It's safe to say there would have been no recount had Al Gore's brain trust not reached then-Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth in the predawn hours of November 8, 2000. Just a few hours earlier, it had seemed a valiant get-out-the-vote effort on behalf of the vice president had failed. Networks had declared Florida for Bush. The Republican-rich Panhandle had seemingly put the presidential race out of reach by about 50,000 votes.
Gore, who had already placed the customary congratulatory call to his opponent, was minutes away from arriving at the War Memorial Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee, where he planned a concession speech. But ballots were still being counted. He suddenly learned the gap had closed to only 6,000 votes in Florida.
Butterworth, then state finance chairman for the Gore campaign, had barely stepped through the door of his home in Hollywood when the phone rang. The vice president's chief of staff, Charles Brunson, was on the line. By then, Bush's lead had dwindled to less than 2,000 votes.
"What does Florida law say about a recount?" Butterworth recalls Brunson asking. The attorney general was very familiar with the state's election rules. In 1986, when he was first elected attorney general, only 996 votes separated him from his primary opponent, state Sen. Ed Dunn.
"I told him if it's within a half percent, Florida law requires an automatic recount," Butterworth recalls. So around 2:30 a.m., Gore phoned Bush a second time and retracted his concession.
Not long after that predawn call, national news anchors including the Today Show's Katie Couric asked Butterworth whether he had advised the Gore team not to concede, which would have been an obvious conflict. "That's not what I said at all," Butterworth recollects. "All I did was tell them what the state law is. They made the decision to turn around."
Two years later, once the U.S. Supreme Court had decided the race and all the hanging chads had been relegated to history's dustbin, Butterworth resigned as attorney general to run for a state Senate seat representing Broward and Palm Beach Counties in a newly redrawn district that was overwhelmingly Republican. Naturally, Democrat Butterworth got clobbered by Republican Jeff Atwater (who would become Florida's chief financial officer and a leading GOP contender for governor in 2018).
Butterworth then left politics for a time and served a stint as the law school dean of St. Thomas University. In 2006, Gov. Charlie Crist appointed him secretary of the Florida Department of Children and Families, a post he held for two years. Today he's of counsel for the law firm Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, where he represents corporate clients who get into trouble with state regulatory agencies.
"I primarily work with companies that want to correct things," Butterworth says. "We make sure they are going to conduct business in the appropriate way."
Looking back, Butterworth, whose blondish-gray hair has given way to a full head of white locks, believes the Supreme Court made a mistake by stopping the recount. "I wish they would have allowed it to proceed just to make sure," Butterworth says in a soft baritone. "I think it hurt the Bush presidency to some extent. Starting off that way is never a good idea."
Though Butterworth doesn't think his role in the recount affected his political career, he has faced criticism for allegedly being too soft on those in the opposing party. For instance, Butterworth shocked many Democrats in 2010 when he endorsed Atwater's campaign for CFO.
As Election Day draws closer, Butterworth is confident Clinton will pull away from Trump. "The public doesn't want a bully as a leader of the free world," he says. "Obviously, Hillary is not the most liked person in the world, but she is brilliant. I think she is ready to be president."
Via a satellite feed, TV viewers can see Katherine Harris, all dolled up and wearing a purple dress, sitting in her office next to the Florida state flag. The secretary of state, a stick-thin woman with auburn hair parted to the side and debutante makeup, purses her lips as if she's trying to smile like Jack Nicholson's Joker in Batman. As the recount in Florida heads into its second week, Harris has hinted she will go ahead and certify the results for Bush anyway. MSNBC Hardball host Chris Matthews wastes no time going for the Florida secretary of state's jugular.
"Many people have accused you of being a pawn of the Republican Party," Matthews bellows. "You were Governor [George W.] Bush's co-campaign chair in Florida. Seems like you could be accused of political cronyism."
Harris, flashing that forced grin, deftly denies the accusation. "Chris, I think everyone agrees," she says. "My political leanings are irrelevant. I am merely doing my duty."
Matthews needles her, asserting the Florida Supreme Court issued a gag order for her to "shut that surgically enhanced trap of [hers] until these hand counts are completed."
Harris says she fully intends to comply with the order. "Do I know who has officially won the election? Yes," she says. "Am I going to announce it? No. Am I going to enjoy watching that Tennessee robot cry when he hears the results? Yes. Does that make me partisan? I don't think so."
Of course, it wasn't the real Matthews and Harris. Rather, it was Saturday Night Live actors Darrell Hammond and Ana Gasteyer doing impressions of the TV talking head and the secretary of state during one of many skits the show aired during the 36-day postelection-recount extravaganza. Harris was repeatedly skewered on SNL and late-night talk-show hosts for alleged partisanship.
From the moment the election was contested, Harris became a target on television, in print, and on the web. She mostly went silent — and didn't return three phone messages seeking an interview for this story. But her actions during the recount made her a Republican hero and a favorite foil for Democrats and comedians.
Even before the controversy, the perfectly coiffed secretary of state from Sarasota had caused controversy. After being elected to a four-year term in 1994 to the state Senate, she had been roundly criticized for spending on lavish trips to Iran, India, and the Netherlands, as well as other exotic locales. Then there was that purge of ex-felons from voter rolls that contributed to George W. Bush's close win in Florida when she had moved up to secretary of state.
On November 14, 2000, Harris announced she had received the certified returns from all 67 Florida counties. That was strange, because Volusia, Palm Beach, Broward, and Miami-Dade Counties were still conducting manual recounts, as requested by the Gore campaign. She required tardy counties to submit written statements of facts and circumstances to justify the late filing. Unsurprisingly, she then determined that none of those statements justified a deadline extension. On November 18, she certified Bush the victor. That's when the Gore team initiated the first of many legal challenges.
In Center of the Storm, a 2002 book she authored, Harris blamed Gore's "aggressive legal tactics" for ruining his chance at a statewide recount. She claimed the vice president would have been better served had he contested the election after she certified the results. "In fact, had Al Gore not fought my enforcement of that deadline (thereby enabling me to certify the election on November 17, 2000, the deadline for our receipt of overseas military ballots), he could have filed his contest more than one week earlier," Harris wrote.
At first, Harris' star seemed to be on the rise, while Butterworth's slid into obscurity. In 2002, Harris, with major support from the Bush family, won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. In 2006, she ran for the U.S. Senate, but her campaign tanked after she became embroiled in a bribery scandal involving a top donor. Though she was never criminally charged, she dropped out of politics.
Tragedy struck seven years later when her husband, Anders Ebbeson, committed suicide in the couple's Sarasota home. This past February, Harris made a rare public appearance when she attended the Florida Senate's legislative reunion at the state capitol in Tallahassee.
Today the 59-year-old Republican still wears elegant dresses and pageant makeup when in public. Since 2013, Harris has served as executive chairwoman of the Sarasota Bradenton Modern Pentathlon, an Olympic-style event held every February. She lives in a palatial, French-inspired waterfront mansion in Sarasota. It's unknown whom Harris is supporting in the presidential race.
If the November election does end in a deadlock, Ken Detzner will take Harris' place. He's a Rick Scott appointee who might well help Trump because his boss endorsed the billionaire real-estate developer for president.
On a summer afternoon in 2006, Carol Roberts was more than 9,000 miles from her home in West Palm Beach. She sat in a plane idling on the tarmac of Jackson International Airport in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. A septuagenarian with reddish-blond hair and a raspy voice, Roberts struck up a conversation with a young man across the aisle.
"Didn't you have something do with the elections in the U.S.?" the fellow inquired.
In the days following the 2000 election, as one of three canvassing board members, Roberts had indeed led the charge for a manual recount of Palm Beach County's 425,000 ballots. The young man, along with tens of millions of others around the world, had seen Roberts, at the time a spry Democratic activist in her 60s, proclaim on television: "Will we go to jail? Because I'd be ready to go to jail [for recounting ballots]."
The fellow passenger in New Guinea "asked me to sign an autograph," Roberts recalls to New Times. "I gave him an extra photo of myself that was in my purse."
Following the recount, Roberts became a folk hero among Democrats. For Republicans, she was a liberal usurper. On November 9, 2000, following a hand recount of 4,000 ballots that identified 33 additional votes for Gore and 14 for Bush, Roberts made a motion for the canvassing board to do a manual recount of all the county's presidential votes. It passed two to one.
GOP operatives desperately tried to eject Roberts from the canvassing board. They cited her overt Democratic leanings. She had raised cash for U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson's campaign and prominently displayed a Gore bumper sticker on her SUV. On November 16, 2000, five Republican observers signed affidavits claiming Roberts had manipulated ballots so Gore would receive more votes than Bush. Two days later, lead Republican lawyer Mark Wallace demanded she recuse herself from the board because of her "active" involvement in the Gore campaign.
Roberts scoffed at those accusations back then, and she still does. "It was a lot of nonsense," she says. "We weren't cheating... The Republican Party wanted to make sure Bush was president, and they did everything they could to obstruct justice."
For more than a quarter-century, Roberts was a vital figure in Palm Beach politics. In 1975, she became the first woman elected to the West Palm Beach City Commission. She held the title of vice mayor for four years and served two terms as mayor. In 1986, voters propelled her to the Palm Beach County Commission, where she held onto her seat for the next 16 years.
Now 80 years old, Roberts says she stopped pursuing politics after losing a congressional race to Republican E. Clay Shaw Jr. in 2002. "I am enjoying life and staying out of politics as much as I can," she says. "I just got back from a three-week trip through the Northwest with my 13-year-old granddaughter."
She plans to vote for Clinton. "I think Trump is a smart man, but I don't like his business practices," Roberts says. "I think Hillary is by far the best qualified with her foreign affairs background and experience in Congress."
Roberts doubts Florida will ever experience another seismic political event like the 2000 recount, but she believes elections departments across the state are better equipped to handle another close call. "We did get rid of all the chads," she affirms.
As creator of the most controversial ballots, which had two pages that sometimes overlapped and made "hanging chads" possible, Theresa LePore was dubbed "Madame Butterfly" by the media. Many Democrats blamed the then-Palm Beach County elections supervisor for allowing Bush to win the election. Even though 16 years have passed since the recount, the wounds apparently remain fresh. LePore initially agreed to be interviewed for this story but then did not respond to subsequent phone calls and an email seeking answers to questions.
Almost immediately after polls in the 2000 presidential election opened, some people complained LePore's design led them to vote for conservative Reform Party candidate Patrick Buchanan instead of Gore. LePore quickly became a pariah in her own party. Some Democrats blamed her when Bush was officially declared the winner in Florida by 537 votes.
In a first-person account published two years ago in Boca magazine, LePore described the trauma she endured in the aftermath of the 2000 election. She recalled one particular moment after a meeting in the County Attorney's Office. "When we came down and the elevator door opened, there were 60 or 70 of these SWAT guys, and all these flash bulbs were going off," LePore said. "The press had found me. People were screaming, 'There she is! There she is!' They were calling me names and trying to grab at me. That was the first time I realized the enormity of what was happening."
LePore said she received "some really ugly, hateful mail" and death threats. Some critics even told her that 9/11 was her fault and that she had "the blood of thousands of men and women on my hands," she wrote.
"I lost so many friends over what happened [during the 2000 presidential election], and some people today still don't speak to me when I see them," LePore explained. "I think what upsets me the most is that I was on several task forces for balloting — and the idea was to make the ballot easier for the people to read."
The experience seems to have left LePore with a form of posttraumatic stress. She claimed she never drives the same route twice and avoids going to public places during busy times.
In 1971, LePore had begun her career in the elections office as a file clerk. She rose through the ranks to become chief deputy supervisor in the late '70s. In 1996, she was elected to the top supervisor job as a registered Democrat. She lost in 2004 after leaving the Democratic Party in the face of the vehement anger and vitriol she endured in the recount aftermath.
In a 2010 Palm Beach Post profile, LePore, then 55 years old, said she devoted most of her time to volunteer work assisting the Marine Corps' Toys for Tots program and working on the executive committee of a cancer walk in West Palm Beach. LePore also said she was active with the Girl Scouts, the Executive Women of the Palm Beaches, and Executive Women Outreach.
According to her LinkedIn profile, she is president and CEO of TA LePore Consultants and executive director of the Miss South Florida Fair Scholarship Pageant.
This past August 30, Palm Beach voters reelected Susan Bucher, who in 2008 beat LePore's successor as election supervisor, Arthur Anderson. On the campaign trail, Bucher boasted that the chances of another election meltdown are slim to none. "I'm very pleased that the voters have the confidence to elect me for another term," Bucher said during her victory speech. "We have demonstrated that... we are organized and can produce an election like the voters expect us to."
In a photo that immortalized his role in the 2000 recount, Robert Rosenberg's bulging eye examined a paper ballot through the wide lens of a magnifying glass. He was searching for signs of a dimple or perforation. From the moment the image was published in newspapers around the world, the Broward County judge became internationally known as "The Hanging Chad Guy."
"As soon as I started using [the magnifying glass], the press went bonkers," Rosenberg says during a phone interview with New Times. "They were taking all these pictures. Click! Click! Click! Click!"
Rosenberg certainly wasn't seeking the attention. He actually needed to use the magnifying glass because he has 20/200 vision with astigmatism. "I didn't know it would produce the reaction it did," says Rosenberg, a tall man with short gray hair and a measured voice. "I just knew I had poor vision."
Nor was he enthusiastic about recounting the ballots. When then-Broward elections supervisor Jane Carroll resigned from the canvassing board because of the intense pressure, Rosenberg was the only official both Republicans and Democrats trusted to fill her role. He remembers asking if they could find someone else. "I had a full docket and a busy week ahead of me after coming back from a judicial conference," he says.
On November 24, 2000, eyes straining from his second day counting 1,800 ballots with dimpled chads, Rosenberg asked a clerk for the magnifying glass. Soon after that, his mug was seen on the front pages of the New York Times and other major newspapers, as well as on ABC, NBC, CNN, and Univision. Rosenberg received calls to appear on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno and a commercial for eye-drop-maker Visine. He turned them down, although he was spoofed by Saturday Night Live and even in a 2001 Super Bowl ad for Ruffles potato chips.
A year after the recount, Rosenberg donated the magnifying glass to the National Museum of American History to go along with other artifacts from the contested election. Among them was one of the butterfly ballots and a Votomatic voting machine. "I thought it was the appropriate thing to do," he says. "It is American history after all."
Since retiring from the bench in 2012, Rosenberg has worked as a mediator and special magistrate. "If lawyers are having difficulty conducting depositions, I am asked to... calm people down," he says.
He hasn't decided who will get his vote for president in November. "Each candidate has terrific negatives," Rosenberg opines. "You say to yourself: Is this the best we can do?"
The former judge believes the 2000 recount could largely have been avoided if the Votomatic machines had been properly maintained. He notes many of the machines had a buildup of spent chads that made it difficult for the voter to punch a hole all the way through the ballot. "Imagine using a hole puncher and never cleaning out the slot where all the clippings accumulate," Rosenberg says. "After a while, you wouldn't be able to punch a hole through. The same is true of the Votomatic."
He doubts Florida will ever run into another elections catastrophe. "Will it happen again?" Rosenberg says. "No. You have to be within a very narrow margin with all the other states locked up and both candidates tied. Two thousand was a pretty anomalous situation."
On December 8, 2000, David Boies experienced a legacy-making victory when the Florida Supreme Court ordered a statewide manual recount after agreeing with his argument that the election's outcome should be "determined by a careful examination of the votes of Florida's citizens."
Four days later, Gore's lead counsel was dealt the most crushing defeat in his illustrious legal career when the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the state court's ruling and halted the recount, effectively ending the vice president's claim to the White House.
"I thought the Florida courts handled the case extremely well," Boies told New Times during an August interview. "Of course, I was disappointed with the opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court."
Before the 2000 election, Boies had burnished his name as special trial counsel in the U.S. Department of Justice's antitrust suit against Microsoft. He drew comparisons to the iconic American litigator Clarence Darrow. But the recount turned Boies into a household name.
For more than 30 days, the attorney led the Gore attack in front of local canvassing boards, Florida judges, and the state and federal supreme courts. "I don't know how history will look back at my role," Boies says, "but I think history will look back at the case as one of the handful of low points in U.S. Supreme Court history."
He never expected the battle to go beyond the Florida Supreme Court, reasoning that contested elections, including those for federal office, have always been decided at the state level. "I didn't believe the U.S. Supreme Court would intervene," Boies says. "It was probably one of the most extreme moments that I was wrong."
Despite the historic loss, the 75-year-old Illinois native remains one of America's most high-profile attorneys. In 2009, Boies teamed up with old foe and Bush recount team lead counsel Theodore Olson in a federal lawsuit to overturn Proposition 8, a successful voter referendum that outlawed same-sex marriage in California. Four years later, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that Proposition 8 was unconstitutional and, at the same time, invalidated the Defense of Marriage Act, which since 1996 had defined marriage as being between one man and one woman.
Recently, his firm Boies Schiller & Flexner, along with a public interest group, settled a decades-old class-action lawsuit against the State of Florida for failing to provide adequate health-care services to indigent children. This past April, Florida agreed to improve poor children's access to health care by increasing Medicaid reimbursements to pediatric doctors.
"I've got a lot going on and have no plans on retiring," Boies says. "I'm better at practicing law than sitting on the beach reading a novel. For me, it's more fun."
If called upon, Boies says, he would accept the role of Hillary Clinton's lead lawyer in a contested election. A longtime Democrat, Boies says it's very unlikely Trump will make it a close race. "I have been a Hillary Clinton supporter for a long time. I don't think the election is going to be that close."
Grainy video shows a mob of Republican operatives trying to push through the double doors of the old Miami-Dade elections office inside downtown Miami's Stephen P. Clark Center. Duane Gibson, a lanky, ginger-haired chap in a blue blazer, white dress shirt, red tie, and square-rimmed eyeglasses, jabs a left index finger in the air. His face contorts in a scowl as he leads a chant: "Let us in! Let us in! Let us in!"
Earlier that morning on November 21, 2000, the three-member Miami-Dade canvassing board had concluded it could not hand-count all 654,000 ballots cast by the county's voters by the tight deadline the state Supreme Court had mandated the previous night. So the canvassers voted to manually count only 10,750 ballots that machines had not registered. That decision sent Gibson and other Republicans into a lather.
"They kept changing the rules on us," Gibson, now age 54, insists. "First, they were going to do the count. Then they weren't. Then they delayed it. There were no fair procedures."
At the time, Gibson was an aide to Alaska Congressman Don Young and had volunteered as a Bush campaign observer in the Miami-Dade recount. "My role was to make sure the recounts were fair and square," Gibson says.
The commotion outside the elections office erupted when the canvassing board decided to close the recount to the public. Gibson claims he witnessed Joe Geller, then chairman of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party, inside the room with the canvassers. "I knew who he was," Gibson says, "and through the glass window, I saw them give him some ballots. That is when I got upset."
Gibson and a couple of his pals followed Geller into an elevator while chanting, "Stop the fraud!" Upstairs, protesters trampled, punched, and kicked several people as they tried to storm the elections office. Their antics succeeded in persuading the canvassing board to call off the recount altogether. News outlets including the New York Times and CNN would subsequently dub the fracas the "Brooks Brothers Riot."
"I thought the name was funny," Gibson admits. "In retrospect, thank goodness we have a democracy and a Constitution that affords people the ability to express their viewpoints and question government."
In 2002, Gibson left Capitol Hill to work for a government relations team headed by powerhouse lobbyist Jack Abramoff in the Washington, D.C. office of law firm Greenberg Traurig. Two years later, Gibson left Greenberg just as a federal investigation into Abramoff's dealings was intensifying. In 2006, Abramoff was convicted and sentenced to six years in federal prison for mail fraud, conspiracy to bribe public officials, and tax evasion.
For the past 14 years, Gibson has been a consultant for the Alexandria, Virginia-based lobbying firm the Livingston Group. According to his company bio, he successfully lobbied on behalf of contractors involved in debris removal after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City, highway transportation programs for Native Americans, and changes to a Department of Energy auto loan program.
"I'm still plugged in a little to the political scene," Gibson says, "but I haven't given any contributions to any presidential candidate in the primary or otherwise."
He believes Trump has a realistic shot of beating Clinton. "I think people have underestimated Trump at every turn," he says. "He has to speak to a broader audience now. I think he is finding his way there. I think he has a decent chance."
And Gibson won't rule out the possibility of another Florida recount. "One thing the recount taught me is that it is never over till it's over," he says. "It was hard to believe in 2000 that the election came down to a few hundred votes. But it happened."
The morning of November 21, 2000, then New Times Broward-Palm Beach columnist Bob Norman headed to the Broward County Emergency Operations Center in Fort Lauderdale for an important act of civic duty. Like so many people, he had been transfixed by the ballot counting.
"You had Jim Baker and some of these other GOP folks screaming about the disaster going on in these rooms," Norman recollects. "There was even a claim that people were eating chads."
To get to the bottom of it, Norman — at the time a registered Democrat — decided to volunteer as a Gore observer for an afternoon. The Bush team also had observers who were monitoring the recount.
"I did it as a reporter and a citizen," he says. "My only rule was not to lie about why I was there."
However, no one ever asked him what he did for a living, Norman remembers. "I wasn't on television, and my photo wasn't in my column," he notes. "I was completely incognito."
Instead of stumbling upon chicanery, Norman found the entire observation process tedious. After a two-hour wait, he and three other observers spent about six hours inspecting 1,000 ballots. During that time, Norman says, he saw 43 Gore votes and six for Bush added to the total.
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"Inside, it was very orderly and professional," he says. "It was nothing like Republicans were describing it. In fact, being an observer made me prouder of our country and our democracy. All this controversy was being ginned up outside by political operatives."
After the recount battle ended, Norman spent the next decade writing exposés on a multitude of scandals. Among them was the U.S. government's failure to prevent the 9/11 terrorists from entering the country and the Scott Rothstein Ponzi scheme. In 2011, Norman joined WPLG Channel 10's investigative team.
Norman declined to say whom he'll vote for this November. He doesn't think the race will come down to another contested election in Florida. "There will never be a recount like the one in 2000," he says.
November 7, 2000, will always have a unique place in history because of the way the day unfolded, he says. "The country was in a dead split between two candidates, and it all came to a boil in Florida," Norman says. "Watching the numbers change throughout the night and realizing it wasn't over was a surreal and amazing moment in American politics. It was the convergence of these events that created the perfect stalemate."