Jan. 6, 2022

The End of a Contested Election

The End of a Contested Election

January 6, 2001. The U.S Congress certifies George W. Bush as the winner of the heated 2000 presidential election.

This episode of History Daily has been archived, but you can still listen to it as a subscriber to Noiser+, Wondery+, or as a Prime Member with the Amazon Music app.


Cold Open

It’s November 22, 2000.

Doug Heye, a Republican congressional staffer, rides an elevator to the 19th floor of the Stephen F. Clark Government Center in Miami, Florida.

A few days ago, Doug and a group of fellow staffers were sent here to observe a manual vote recount that might decide the winner of the contested 2000 U.S. presidential election. The outcome hinges on the result here in the state of Florida. Currently, neither candidate - Republican Nominee George W. Bush or Democratic Nominee Al Gore - is a clear winner.

Major news networks already called Florida for Bush. But the latest numbers show that Bush is only ahead of Gore by a few hundred votes. Desperate to hold on to victory, Republican operatives, men like Doug Heye, are in Miami to observe the court-mandated recount and to make sure that election officials count every vote.

As Doug rides up on the elevator, he thinks back over the past few days. He and other staffers have worked in shifts, watching as election officials counted every hole-punched ballot by hand. It was tedious and tiring, but the process was peaceful… until early this morning when election officials decided to finish the counting process behind closed doors.

As Doug steps off the elevator onto the 19th floor, he hears the angry roar of a large crowd of Republican protesters who’ve descended on the building. Some of them look like lawyers with their Brooks Brothers suits and Hermès ties. They surround the locked door where the votes are being counted, chanting: “Let us in! Let us in!”

Doug watches as the crowd pounds on the door. 

Republicans on the scene make it known to election officials inside that a crowd of 1000 Bush supporters are on their way to join the protest. Frightened, administrators decide to open the process back up to the public.

And once the doors are opened, The Brooks Brothers Riot, as this event will come to be known, is over, but the drama of the 2000 presidential contest is just beginning. This contested election will stress the foundations of the American electoral process, and embroil the country in one of the most controversial presidential elections in modern history.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is January 6th, 2001: The End of a Contested Election.

Act One: Election Night

It’s November 7th, 2000, election night, at the Loews Hotel in downtown Nashville.

Vice President Al Gore sits in his hotel room surrounded by friends and family. Gore, the Democratic Presidential Nominee, can’t take his eyes off the TV screen. It’s the end of a long, hard-fought campaign. And tonight, the winner will be decided.

After eight years of Bill Clinton in the White House, many Americans are ready for change. On the campaign trail, Gore, Clinton’s Vice President, tried to separate himself from the scandal-plagued president and did his best to show the American people that he is his own man. But the Vice President and his team know it will be a close election.

Gore’s opponent, Texas Governor George Bush, is the son of a former president; the Bush family name carries weight with Republican voters. Not to mention, many see Gore as a stiff, wooden academic; and Bush has a folksy charm that appeals to many in the conservative base.

The two candidates offer very different visions for the country. Gore portrayed himself as a champion of the people and focused on issues like Social Security, health care, and prescription drugs' costs. Bush focused his campaign on education, national defense, and cutting taxes.

Heading into election day, both sides knew it would be close. In order to win the election, the Gore camp identified three “must-win” states: Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Florida. These three swing states constitute a large portion of the necessary electoral votes to win.

And at just before 8:00 PM, Gore watches as news networks make a major call:

“ANCHOR: We're gonna now project an important win for Vice President, Al Gore; NBC news projects that he wins the 25 electoral votes in the state of Florida. It turns out that governor Jeb Bush was not his brother's keeper. The family have been joking, and seriously, that it could be a cold Thanksgiving." 

Ten minutes after the Florida announcements, there’s another:

“ ANCHOR: The state of Michigan has just gone to Vice President Al Gore. And what does this mean, Chris?"

"CHRIS: Pennsylvania means those 18 there, and the 25 from Florida means the 23 from Pennsylvania..." 

Half an hour later, at 8:47 PM, yet another call is made:

"ANCHOR: We are calling the state of Pennsylvania, right now, interrupting myself, for Al Gore. NBC News is projecting that when the votes are counted, Pennsylvania will go the Vice President's way. This was the big state everyone was waiting for tonight, especially after the early big states like Florida." 

As he watches the news unfold on TV, Gore is feeling confident that victory is at hand.

Meanwhile, in the lobby of the Four Seasons hotel in downtown Austin, Texas, Governor George W. Bush watches the tv anxiously as his chance at the presidency slips away.

”ANCHOR: Chris Matthews, what does this mean for George W. Bush's hopes of winning the Presidency tonight?"

"CHRIS: Well, I don't wanna be the first one to say it, but will let Ed Ronin to take the crack. You ran Republican campaigns for President successfully. Is this the final defeat?"

"RON: Well, unless all the networks and all the pollsters are gonna get lots of egg on their face because there's some hidden vote out there that we haven't seen, I think, it's pretty much over."

Governor Bush watches the drama unfold with his father, former President George H.W. Bush, sitting by his side. Bush's prospects are looking grim.

But then, not ten minutes after Gore seemed the sure winner, the same news networks shockingly reverse their calls:

"ANCHOR: What the networks giveth, the networks taketh away. NBC News is now taking Florida out of Vice President Gore’s column and putting it back in the “too close to call” column."

At the Loews hotel in Nashville, the Gore camp stops celebrating. At the Four Seasons in Austin, hope is renewed. 

When the votes are tallied, Gore wins the popular vote handily by half a million votes or more, but as Article II Section One of the US Constitution stipulates, it's the electoral college count that matters. Gore finishes election night with 250 electoral votes. Bush finishes with 246. Both candidates are short of the 270 electoral votes needed to win. In the end, the 2000 presidential contest will come down to Florida and its 25 electoral votes.

With the election hanging in the balance, the job of certifying the winner of the statewide vote falls to Florida Secretary of State, Katherine Harris. At around 2 in the morning, Harris announces that Bush has won Florida by a margin of 50,000 votes.

When Fox News makes the call, Al Gore picks up the phone and congratulates Bush, offering his humble concession. Immediately after that call, Gore leaves his hotel suite, hops in a limousine, and heads to an auditorium in downtown Nashville to address his supporters and deliver the bad news. But on the ride there, members of Gore’s staff learn that Bush’s lead is not 50,000 votes. Bush is only ahead by a few hundred votes, which, according to Florida law, entitles Gore to a recount. Hearing that he is not out of the race yet, Gore picks up the phone again to retract his concession and continue the fight.

Act Two: The Tide Turns

It's dawn on Wednesday, November 8th, 2000, at the Four Seasons hotel in Austin, Texas.

Governor George W. Bush is in a happy daze when a staffer hands him a cell phone and tells him Vice President Al Gore is on the line again. When Gore explains why he’s calling, the smile fades from Bush’s face.

Frustrated, Bush asks, “let me make sure I understand… you’re calling back to retract your concession?” Gore says, “yes”, and Bush’s tone turns icy cold; so much so that Gore remarks, “you don’t have to get snippy about this.” But Bush is beyond snippy, he's furious. Bush explains that his brother, Florida Governor Jeb Bush, assured him the election was over. Gore replies, “Your younger brother is not the ultimate authority on this.”

Hanging up, Bush finds a television and turns up the volume.

"ANCHOR: All right. We're officially saying that Florida is "too close to call" because of a recall campaign, and voter counters have been called back to work, to count absentee ballots. Will that be going on throughout the evening so far as we know? Yes. It will be happening, even as we speak, they've been called back tonight. So we take Florida away from George W. Bush, that means he's short of the 270 electrical votes that he needs."

Frustrated, Bush remarks to his father that this is how he must’ve felt losing to Bill Clinton in the 1992 presidential contest. His father replies, “no, son, this is a hell of a lot worse.”


On November 9th, the recount puts Bush’s lead at just under 2,000 votes. Because the margin of victory is less than a half percent of the total votes cast, Florida state law mandates that every vote in every county must be counted again. And until the recount is complete, the election is not over.

That same day, a mandatory machine recount begins in all Florida counties. After the machine recount is done, Bush’s lead drops again to just above three hundred votes. But the process is plagued by irregularities, specifically on the paper ballots that cannot be processed by a machine. 

As a result, Gore and the Democrats sue to force manual recounts in several counties that might help them overcome Bush’s narrow lead. But the clock is ticking. Florida State Law also stipulates that all ballots must be counted by November 14th, one week after the election.

But that deadline comes and goes, and the manual recounts are not yet complete. Gore requests more time, but a state judge denies him. Secretary of State Katherine Harris gives the counties until 2 PM on November 15th to submit their final results. Three of the counties make the deadline, but at a press conference on November 15, Harris makes the call.

"HARRIS: All three counties -- Palm Beach, Miami-Dade and Broward -- responded by the 2:00 PM deadline today… I've decided it is my duty under Florida law to exercise my discretion in denying these requested amendments."

On November 17th, a Florida circuit court authorizes Harris to declare a winner without complete hand recounts. The Florida Supreme Court quickly puts a hold on that decision, waiting to hear an appeal from Vice President Gore’s lawyers.

In the ensuing weeks, by late November, Florida is a political warzone, with both sides accusing the other of foul play. Democrats point to the fact that Katherine Harris is one of Bush’s campaign co-chairs in Florida and a colleague of Bush’s brother, Jeb, the Governor of the state. Others find it suspicious that the head of Fox News' Election Night decision desk, which first called Florida for Bush, is Bush’s first cousin.

Many Republicans are equally suspicious of the Democrats. According to Florida state law, only one recount is required to determine a winner. Bush has won two. The Democrats, they argue, are re-writing Florida’s state laws, and trying to steal the election. As to the Democrats’ claims of shady dealings, many Republicans point out that Governor Jeb Bush recused himself the morning of November 8th and that Secretary Katherine Harris is simply following the law.

On November 21st, Florida’s Supreme Court unanimously rules in favor of Gore, stating that the hand recounts must be included in the final tally and giving a new deadline: 5 PM on November 26th. When news of the court’s decision reaches the public, things turn violent. In downtown Miami, protestors storm the Stephen F. Clark Government Center, trampling, punching, and kicking election volunteers.

The next day, the Bush camp appeals to the nation’s highest legal authority: the United States Supreme Court. The Bush legal team argues that by extending the deadline, the Florida Supreme Court is breaking its own laws.

But even this new deadline passes with the count unfinished. And again, Secretary Harris certifies the Florida election and declares Bush the winner; this time, by 537 votes, a margin of one-hundredth of a percent.

Al Gore is not yet ready to concede. But he knows time is running out. The electoral college is set to officially convene on December 18th. So on November 27th, Gore sues again to contest the results in Florida. On December 8th, Florida Judges order another manual recount. The next day, on December 9th, the United States Supreme Court halts that process. And then, on December 12th, the justices of the United States Supreme Court overturn the Florida Judges, ruling 5-4 that there will be no further counting of Florida's ballots. The November 26th recount will stand. Al Gore is left with no choice but to face the nation and announce defeat.

Act Three: The Legal Battle

On December 13th, 2000, 5 days before the electoral college convenes, Al Gore finally addresses the nation.

"GORE: Good evening. Just moments ago I spoke with George W. Bush and congratulated him on becoming the 43rd president of the United States. And I promised him that I wouldn't call him back this time.”

Weeks later, on January 6th, 2001, as part of his Vice Presidential duties, Al Gore presides over a joint session of Congress that certifies his opponent, George W. Bush as the winner and puts an end to one of the closest, most controversial elections in American history.

Bush becomes the first son of a president to win the White House since John Quincy Adams in 1824. Al Gore becomes the fourth candidate in history to win the popular vote yet lose the presidency. 

During the contested 2000 election, the electoral system established by the United States constitution did bend, but it did not break. Thomas Mann, a fellow at the Brookings Institute observed, “Americans are… divided… Under these circumstances, no one should be surprised that the… [2000] election… ended in a [near] draw. Nor should they be surprised if heated competition between the two major parties shapes politics and policymaking in [years to come].” However divisive, the heated election came to an end, and the peaceful transfer of power was all but assured when Congress certified Bush’s victory on January 6th, 2001. 


Next on History Daily. January 7th, 2015. Two gunmen storm the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Derek Behrens.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Steven Walters.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.