A zany night of election drama gives way to frantic days of waiting, watching in Florida.
By TIM NICKENS
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 9, 2000
The eyes of the world turned to Florida on Wednesday as the state began a remarkable recount of its votes that will determine who will be the next president.
George W. Bush cautiously predicted that he will be the president-elect and led Vice President Al Gore by 1,784 votes as the recount began. But America is following an unfamiliar story: Two full days after the election, no one is sure who won.
Teams of lawyers for Bush and Gore and hundreds of reporters descended on Tallahassee to investigate the Florida vote. Bush's razor thin lead (about 0.03 of 1 percent out of the 6-million votes cast) triggered an automatic recount. It also brought concerns of voting irregularities to the surface.
It has all come down to Florida after an extraordinary election night in which the TV networks declared Bush the next president and then withdrew the call. On Wednesday Bush and Gore offered solemn but upbeat calls for a quick but thorough accounting of how Florida voted.
Gore appears to have won the national popular vote and leads Bush 260 to 246 in the Electoral College. Whoever gets Florida's 25 electoral votes wins.
"It's going to be resolved in a quick way," Bush said outside the Governor's Mansion in Austin, Texas, with his running mate, Dick Cheney. "I'm confident that the secretary and I will be president-elect and vice president-elect."
It is rare that any outcome changes after a recount.
"I realize this is an extraordinary moment for our democracy," Gore said in Nashville. "We now need to resolve this election in a way that is fair, forthright and fully consistent with our Constitution and our laws."
State elections officials hope to have the recounts completed by this evening, but some counties finished the task on Wednesday.
Hernando County was done in less than an hour, and the results were the same, with Gore narrowly carrying the county.
In Pasco County, Gore picked up 14 votes in a county he carried and Bush picked up one. In Hillsborough County, Bush picked up 47 votes in a county he carried and Gore gained 28 votes.
In Citrus County, Bush picked up 18 votes in a county he won and Gore picked up 22 votes before the absentee votes were recounted.
In Pinellas County, Gore gained 404 votes in a county he won and Bush lost 61 votes, but late Wednesday, Pinellas County's elections canvassing board scheduled another recount for today. Officials were concerned by the difference between Tuesday's and Wednesday's counts. Only part of the jump could be explained by 390 absentee ballots that were somehow not counted on Tuesday.
"If I can't satisfy myself at this point, I can't look anybody else in the eye and tell them "Trust me,' " said County Judge Patrick Caddell, a member of the canvassing board.
Late Wednesday night, 32 of Florida's 67 counties had finished. Among those, Bush picked up 320 votes; Gore added 1,796.
As the recount began, reports of voting irregularities trickled in from different parts of the state. But most of the spotlight focused on Palm Beach County.
Democrats said the way the candidates were listed on the ballot was confusing to some voters and led many Gore supporters to vote for Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan by mistake. Buchanan won 3,407 votes in Palm Beach County, far more than he won in any other county and nearly 20 percent of his statewide total.
Three Palm Beach County residents filed a lawsuit in Palm Beach Circuit Court demanding a new election.
And late Wednesday, a recount of Palm Beach County votes gave Gore 751 more. Minutes later, a group of Palm Beach County legislators called for a new election if the recount does not settle the matter.
They also called attention to 19,000 votes for president that had been nullified before the recount because Palm Beach County voters punched out the names of more than one candidate.
"The presidency of the United States hinges on the 19,000 people who have been disenfranchised in Palm Beach County," said U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler.
In Volusia County, crime scene tape surrounded the supervisor of elections office in DeLand. A county judge ordered it sealed after a complaint about workers leaving early Wednesday carrying mysterious black satchels.
In Hillsborough, the NAACP complained that a deputy was asking for identification from black men trying to vote in one precinct.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson also contended that many black voters were discouraged from casting ballots. He called for Florida's presidential ballots to be recounted by hand instead of by computer.
NAACP President Kwesi Mfume also asked the Justice Department to investigate possible irregularities.
Republicans defended the arrangement of the Palm Beach County ballot. Gov. Jeb Bush said he knew of no voting irregularities but promised that any indication of problems would be investigated.
To remove any appearance of a conflict of interest, Jeb Bush, younger brother of the Republican nominee, removed himself from the state panel that will certify that the recount is the final election result. He made the announcement at a news conference while standing next to Attorney General Bob Butterworth, Gore's state campaign chairman.
"I have always said Florida would be a hard-fought state," Bush said. "Never in my wildest dreams did I think it would be this close."
Added Butterworth: "Florida is in the national spotlight and world spotlight. . . . The integrity of our state is also at stake."
The Gore and Bush campaigns flooded the state with monitors to watch the recounts. Each sent a former secretary of state to oversee the efforts: Warren Christopher for the Democrats and James Baker for the Republicans.
"We are following rules laid down by the laws of Florida," Christopher said. "We don't intend to invoke a constitutional crisis."
Aside from the recount, there were also questions about absentee ballots. Ballots mailed from overseas have 10 days from Tuesday's election to arrive. State elections officials were uncertain how many would show up.
Republicans said those ballots are unlikely to affect the result, because many come from members of the military and their families who tend to vote for GOP candidates. But Democrats expected many of the ballots to come from Jewish voters in Israel who were excited about Gore because of running mate Joseph Lieberman, the first Jewish candidate on a national mainstream ticket.
Four years ago, 2,300 ballots from overseas were counted in the presidential race. Republican Bob Dole won more than 54 percent of them.
The fight for Florida was not expected to be this close when the campaigns started last year. Bush's younger brother was in the Governor's Mansion and helped him raise an unprecedented amount of money in Florida for a presidential candidate, more than $5.6-million.
But Gore followed through on his promise to devote time and resources to the state. His last two campaign stops were on Election Day in Miami Beach and Tampa. Opinion polls before Tuesday's election indicated the battle for Florida was too close to call.
Florida is the epicenter of the longest wait in modern history for a winner to be determined in a presidential election. Twice in one night, a winner was announced and then taken back.
Based on exit polls, Gore was projected the winner of Florida's electoral votes on CNN at 7:55 p.m. That was retracted two hours later after the race tightened.
Bush was declared the winner in Florida at 2:18 a.m. Wednesday by television networks based on his lead in voter returns. That too, was rescinded at 4:03 a.m.
But Bush's lead makes it likely that Bill Clinton will remain the only Democrat to win the state's electoral votes since 1976. And Bush would keep alive the Republican rule-of-thumb that says its nominee must win Florida in order to win. The last Republican to be elected president while losing this state was Calvin Coolidge in 1924.
Gore kept it close in Florida by relying on traditional Democratic constituencies such as women and black voters. He also appeared to do remarkably well among Hispanic voters, primarily because of the large influx of Puerto Ricans and other non-Cuban Hispanics into Central Florida. The number of Cubans and non-Cuban Hispanics in Florida is roughly equal.
The Democrats' stronghold, Broward County, also came through for Gore. The vice president won Broward by more than 209,000 votes, bettering Clinton's 1996 advantage there by more than 32,000. He won Palm Beach County by 116,000 votes even with the controversy over the ballot arrangement, a margin some 20,000 votes greater than Clinton's win.
The Texas governor won Hillsborough County by more than 11,000 votes; Clinton won the county by about 8,000 votes four years ago. Bush won Polk County by 15,000 votes; Dole barely won the county four years ago.
Bush also made inroads into Miami-Dade County, apparently with the help of Cuban Republicans upset with Gore and the administration over the Elian Gonzalez controversy.
Gore won Miami-Dade by more than 39,000 votes, but Clinton had won the county by more than 107,000 votes four years ago.
"The Cuban community came out to get their pay back," said Luigi Crespo, the Republican Party's Miami field director, referring to Cuban exile anger boiling over the failed custody battle involving the 6-year-old Cuban boy.
Cuban exile leaders urged members of the 480,000-strong community to vote for Bush as a way of punishing the Clinton White House. "I think it had a big impact," Crespo said.
Democrats also recognized that Elian might have hurt their candidate. "Elian was a factor in this election, no doubt about it," said Ben Kuehne, a Miami lawyer who observed the Miami recount for the Democrats.
In Texas, Bush expressed quiet confidence he would prevail and started organizing a transition team that would be headed by Cheney. The Texas governor also reportedly was prepared to choose Andrew Card, the former head of the U.S. Department of Transportation, as his chief of staff.
In Nashville, Gore sounded more focused on just getting through the next several hours and hoping for a reversal.
"Our Constitution is the whole foundation of our freedom -- and it must be followed faithfully, toward the true result ordained by the American people in our respective states," Gore said.
Left unsaid: If Gore had won his home state of Tennessee, he would be president-elect today.
Instead, the vice president will become the first presidential candidate since 1888 to win the popular vote but lose the Electoral College if Bush holds his lead in Florida.
"If you wrote a script like this, nobody would believe it," said actor and director Rob Reiner, who came to Nashville to watch the results. "They would drum you out of the screenwriters' guild."
This story was reported by Bill Adair, David Adams, Ryan Davis, Edie Gross, Bridget Hall, Julie Hauserman, Mary Jacoby, David Karp, Lucy Morgan, Tim Nickens, Shelby Oppel, Diane Rado and Jeffrey S. Solochek.