Cover Story

Sudden-death overtime

A divided nation leaves Bush and Gore deadlocked, as the promise of lawsuits and recounts threatens to keep the presidency undecided for weeks-or more

Issue: "President Bush?," Nov. 18, 2000

in Austin, Texas-Tuesday, Nov. 7, 8:45 p.m.: the beginning of something truly historic. Not just the routine history of a presidential election, but something much bigger: a moment of doubt in democracy; a looming constitutional crisis, perhaps. Of the thousands of Bush supporters crammed into a single block of Congress Avenue before the Texas capitol, one of the first to notice history in the making was a middle-aged blond woman in too-tight leather pants and a white fur coat. At 8:45, she suddenly raised her hands toward the massive Jumbotron TV screen at the corner of the stage and started to dance giddily. It hardly seemed like a time for dancing. For most of the previous two hours, the news had been bad: Florida, Michigan, and Illinois called for Vice President Gore, casting a pall over the crowd, while Mr. Bush continued to collect only smaller Southern states. Some Bush campaign volunteers on the West Coast gave up and went home upon hearing the Florida news. It looked like it would be a short night. So when the leather-and-fur woman started her ecstatic boogie, others in the crowd looked at her in bewilderment. Onscreen, the talking heads of CNN droned on and on; nothing seemed to be danceworthy in what they were saying. But in the lower right-hand corner of the screen, unseen by almost everyone in the crowd, something huge had happened: With no explanation, the electoral tally for Al Gore had dropped by 25 votes. Eventually CNN's Bernard Shaw interrupted his colleagues with the embarrassing admission that they had awarded Florida prematurely. New poll numbers showed the race too close to call, so the state, with its 25 electoral votes, was moving back to the undecided column. To the cold, wet partisans in Austin, the announcement marked the beginning of a long-awaited party. Little did they know it would also mark the beginning of one of the most bizarre and bitterly divisive episodes in American political history. A century from now, students reading about the election of 2000 in civics classes will shake their heads at the improbability of it all. But the facts alone-the almost impossibly narrow margins, the multiple lawsuits, the grueling recounts-will not convey the emotional story. Never before in American memory has the transfer of power been so uncertain. The well-oiled constitutional machine, which has functioned well through war, assassination, and impeachment, suddenly seemed in danger of breaking down. By Thursday night, 48 hours after casting their ballots, Americans still did not know the identity of their next president-and, short of a surprise concession speech by one of the two candidates, the days of uncertainty could stretch into weeks. If voters felt shaky in the days after the election, it was nothing compared to the psychological bungee jump they endured on Election Night. In Austin, Nashville, and living rooms across the country, emotions seesawed as Florida moved from undecided to Gore to undecided to Bush to undecided. Along the way, the Texas governor was briefly media-labeled the next president of the United States, setting off a wild celebration in front of the capitol in Austin. Mr. Gore promptly called to congratulate his opponent and headed to the Nashville War Memorial to make the announcement to his wet, dispirited troops. But an hour later he'd changed his mind. In a second call to Mr. Bush, he said it was too early to concede. The Jumbotron on Congress Avenue confirmed the vice president's decision. Around 3 a.m. in Austin, CNN made yet another switch. This time, it was Mr. Bush's count that dropped from 271 to 246, compared to 249 for Mr. Gore. The vice president went on to claim Wisconsin by a whisker-thin margin, taking him to 260. And there it remained for days, 246 to 260. Thanks to its unusual voting laws, Oregon, too, remained undecided, but it hardly mattered; without Florida, neither man could reach the magic number of 270. Officials in the Sunshine State promptly announced they would hold a recount, and both campaigns scrambled to get hundreds of lawyers on the ground to monitor the effort in every Florida county. Each party trotted out one of its most respected figures to oversee the Florida ground war: former Secretary of State Warren Christopher for the Democrats, and former Secretary of State James Baker for the Republicans. Cool heads were certainly needed. With the most powerful office in the world riding on the outcome of the Florida vote, accusations and conspiracy theories began to fly. Jesse Jackson swept into Palm Beach, insisting that Haitian-American voters had been turned away from polls or denied help with the ballot when they asked for it. In Miami, a daycare worker at a predominantly black church caused a nationwide sensation when she reported finding a padlocked ballot box in the fellowship hall, which had been used as a polling place. And in Daytona Beach, an elderly poll worker showed up Wednesday with a bag of ballots he claimed had gone uncounted. Although the latter two claims were quickly dispatched-the box contained supplies and the bag contained already-counted ballots-the recount itself proceeded at an agonizing pace. Voting machines were re-calibrated to zero, and one by one the ballots were again fed through them. According to election officials, discrepancies in the two counts were usually a result of "hanging chads," the little squares of paper that sometimes fail to drop off when a voter punches his ballot. When fed through a counting machine, the hanging chads can close back up, causing the computer to miss that vote. The recount in Florida-and its attendant uncertainty-was not Mr. Gore's idea. State law mandates that the numbers be re-tabulated if the margin in the popular vote is less than one-half of 1 percent. With just 1,784 votes separating the candidates at the outset-out of nearly 6 million cast-the margin in this race was approximately three hundredths of 1 percent. As county reports began to trickle in Wednesday and Thursday, the news looked good for the vice president. New counts in Democrat-leaning counties like Palm Beach and Pinellas cut Mr. Bush's lead from 1,800 to fewer than 500. But as Florida real estate began to dwindle, the Republican lead apparently held: With votes in all 67 Florida counties recounted, networks relying on Associated Press and Voter News Service reports Friday morning reported Bush leads of 327 and 331, respectively. (Florida election officials at a press conference Thursday reported on 53 of the 67 counties, with Mr. Bush retaining a 1,784-vote lead.) After a day of Jesse Jackson-led street theater, at 9:00 p.m. Thursday demonstrators were still shouting at 3rd Street outside the government center in West Palm Beach. The street was blocked to traffic and police barricades lined the sidewalks to prevent physical confrontations between Gore advocates and some Bush supporters who had come out. André Fladell, a Delray Beach chiropractor who had filed suit in circuit court alleging that Palm Beach County ballots were illegal, moved among the pack of reporters present, looking to feed them his views. Whatever the exact size of the Bush lead, the Gore campaign was no longer willing to let state law mandate the next step. Campaign chief William Daley announced that he was requesting a third count-by hand, this time-in four Florida counties. He also hinted at legal action, complaining that 19,000 improperly marked ballots were tossed out in Palm Beach County and that the confusing ballot layout may have resulted in hundreds, if not thousands, of Gore votes going to Pat Buchanan. Republicans responded that Palm Beach voters, for some reason, have a history of improperly marking their ballots. In 1996, a year with lighter turnout in the county, 15,000 ballots were disqualified because more than one presidential candidate was marked. As for the confusing ballot layout, Republicans pointed out that the ballot was designed by a Democratic county official, who had arranged the candidates in two columns to allow for larger print for the sake of older voters. Furthermore, both parties had seen the Palm Beach ballot in advance of Election Day, and neither had offered any objections. Neither explanation seemed to satisfy Mr. Daley, who announced Thursday that the Gore campaign would "be working with voters from Florida to support a legal action to demand some redress for the disenfranchisement of more than 20,000 voters in the state of Florida." The threat of legal action, which has no precedent and could tie up results for weeks, drew howls of protest from the Bush camp. "The Democrats who are politicizing and distorting these events risk doing so at the expense of our democracy," campaign chairman Don Evans said. "Our democratic process calls for a vote on Election Day; it does not call for us to continue voting until someone likes the outcome." Even without a legal challenge, however, the election is probably far from over. Results continued to trickle in from Iowa and Wisconsin, two states Mr. Gore won by less than 1 percent. Both have provisions for automatic recounts that could kick in by the time all absentee ballots are counted. But in Florida, more importantly, several thousand overseas ballots have until Nov. 17 to arrive in time for a final count. Such ballots are cast mostly by military families stationed overseas, and they typically run strongly Republican. Lawsuits and political rallies may make things uncomfortable for Republicans in the coming week, but for Mr. Gore, Nov. 17 is likely to be D-Day. If the Bush margin holds in Florida, the vice president must decide whether he'll fight on or accept the will of the people-no matter how closely divided the people may be. Pushing ahead with a lawsuit would almost certainly tarnish his image and turn off independent voters to the Democratic Party. That seems an unlikely course of action, so Mr. Bush continues with his quiet preparations for taking over the reins of power. But in an election full of unprecedented twists and turns, no one is willing to place any bets on the future. This one won't be over until it's history-in every sense of the word.

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