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Bush v. Gore 2000: A cautionary tale for Election 2020

Crowd holding campaign posters that say 'Gore Lieberman 2000' and 'Bush Cheney'
Source: Elvert Barnes

Damian Privitera

As the 2020 Presidential race enters its defining stages between President Donald Trump and former Vice President, Joe Biden, the ideological polarisation between both candidates is arguably one of the strongest witnessed in U.S. contemporary politics. It may be hard to imagine a time when partisan division amongst Democrats and Republicans has run so deep and so strong, but for many of us, this upcoming election is not the first contemporary election where deep ideological divides have dominated.

Bush v. Gore 2000

On November 7th 2000, the world watched one of the most hotly contested presidential races between Texas Governor, George W. Bush and Vice President, Al Gore. As counting began on election night, the major news networks predicted Vice President Gore the winner of Florida’s 25 electoral votes - a critical battleground state. As the night progressed, this call would be hastily retracted, then called for Governor Bush, and once again quickly retracted early into the morning. By the next day, the election remained unresolved, with neither candidate having the 270 electoral votes needed to be elected President.

As Gore was declared the winner in Oregon and Wisconsin in the days following Florida, and with Governor Bush holding a slight lead, the victory remained undetermined. After Bush was declared the winner by Florida’s Secretary of State in the days after, and therefore the winner of the presidency, in accordance with state law, Gore requested a manual recount due to the tightness of the race. In response, the Florida Supreme Court ordered a state-wide manual recount, partially fulfilling Gore’s request of a recount in four predominantly democratic counties.

This would begin a month-long period of uncertainty, with Bush’s lead fluctuating, and ultimately narrowing, over the days. Even after the deadline for the recount appeared, the recount remained inconclusive. Meanwhile, Bush requested the U.S. Supreme Court reverse Florida’s order for a state-wide recount, to solidify the results in his favour. On December 12th 2000, with a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court sided with Bush and ended the state-wide recount. With a lead of 537 votes, George W. Bush was declared the victor of Florida’s 25 electoral votes, and therefore, became the President-elect, concluding one of the most drawn-out, contested elections in U.S. history.

The significance for 2020

The question remains, what is the significance of these events for the upcoming 2020 race?

Put simply, legal battles.

Expecting mail-in and absentee ballots to be the primary source of ballots due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a final decision for President on January 20, 2021 may remain unresolved for days, and possibly weeks to come after election night. President Trump has openly shared his contempt for mail-in and absentee ballots, pursuing efforts to defund and delegitimise such votes by opposing additional funding to the U.S postal service. Indeed, polls suggest that there may be a strong partisan divide between Republicans that support voting in person on election day, and Democrats that support voting remotely by mail.

Axios have highlighted the implications of such a partisan divide on the election count, predicting the possibility of a Trump landslide being called on election night with a later trickling of many mail-in ballots favouring Biden. In short, the influx of main-in and absentee ballots may lead to similar circumstances to that of the 2000 election – one with fluctuating results, unclear winners and confusion.

What may we expect in the months to come and post-election?

Sylvia Albert, director of voting and elections at the nonpartisan pro-democracy group Common Cause, expects “both parties will be looking at every state to see whether a lawsuit could help their candidate win.” These potential legal battles may have serious ramifications for the final result and may lead to numerous concurrent state legal battles, state recounts, and ultimately an unresolved election for weeks after the conclusion of voting.

These concerns are slowly coming to fruition with both candidates preparing for post-election legal battles. President Trump has made no effort to hide his willingness to ‘swarm states with lawyers’ and contest state-wide results post-election night. The Republican National Committee and Trump re-election campaign are doubling their previous legal budget to $20 million on legal fights to an array of battleground states.

Similarly, the New York Times has reported that the Biden campaign is preparing for a major legal operation, “bringing in two former solicitor generals and hundreds of lawyers” in what the campaign is expecting to be one of the “greatest election protection programs in presidential campaign history.” If these preparations prove useful post-November 3rd, Albert has predicted, “there’s a likelihood of Florida times 10.” Indeed, such 2000-esque battles could potentially affect numerous swing states including Florida, Pennsylvania, Arizona and Wisconsin.

Ramifications for 2020

The United States will likely continue to experience growing partisanship and ideological division regardless of who is inaugurated on January 20. Following Bush v. Gore in 2000, partisan protests erupted across Florida’s capital of Tallahassee and Washington D.C., even after Gore’s concession. What makes 2020 appear gloomier is that the incumbent President has not only seeded doubt in the election results prior to election day, but he has considered not accepting the final results due to “massive electoral fraud and a rigged 2020 election.”

Reflecting on 2000, what challenged President-elect Bush most poignantly, was the asterisk that lay on the corner of his name moving into his term as President* (*a position he may not have truly won). Both Presidents Bush and Trump lost the popular vote during their first elections, and in the polarised environment of 2020, a re-elected President Trump or a President Biden may suffer a similar fate with either side delegitimising the winner through disputed results, massive legal battles and protests.

“Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year's Presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the nation's confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law.''- Justice John Paul Stevens [Dissent] Bush v. Gore (2000).


Damian Privitera is currently studying a Bachelor of International Studies (Global Security) at RMIT University in Melbourne. He has a strong interest in international political and security affairs, diplomacy, history, cultural studies and climate change.



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