My experiences and lessons learned from the 2000 Florida recount

Butterfly Ballot

As a veteran of the events of 2000 where I was unfortunately on ground in Palm Beach County, the 2018 recount seems like a bit a of deja vu.  My role in 2000 was extensive. I was on the ground because I was a paid consultant essentially serving as a political strategist to an exceedingly well-funded county Democratic Party (I was being paid ridiculously well by the standards of 2000 to work in a single county, but as it turned out I earned every penny and more). Outside of my responsibilities for George Sheldon’s Commissioner of Education Campaign, beginning October 1, I was anchored in Palm Beach after spending the summer running around the state. Electing Vice President Al Gore as President and Insurance Commissioner Bill Nelson to the US Senate were the priorities along with county constitutional offices. 

The party was being run and self-funded by Monte Friedkin an uber donor to national Democrats and liberal groups who had finally settled down and focused on local party building.

When it came down to it, I was just a naively idealistic kid – just 25 and constantly starstruck. I was perennially (wrongly) convinced of the good intentions of people in politics. The recount would suddenly shift me into a long drift of cynicism and ultra-progressive politics with a tinge of moralistic conservatism that remains annoying to establishment Democrats.

In 2000, we still had runoffs in the state and very few votes before Election Day. Absentee balloting had to be justified and early voting was a niche thing you could do in-person only at the Supervisor of Elections offices during designated office hours. So the entire war was Election Day.

Election Day 2000 – PUNCH FIVE to defeat the “Butterfly Ballot”

I was at Kings Point, a major condominium complex west of Delray Beach when I got the first calls of trouble on a classic circa 2000 Nokia phone. It was 7:25 am. People were voting for Pat Buchanan by accident or double punching, thinking they had to vote for both Al Gore and Joe Lieberman. The now infamous “butterfly ballot,” proved beyond confusing to voters.

It was horrifying to imagine Jewish-Americans, some holocaust survivors, others classic New Deal Democrats having voted for Pat Buchanan, an antisemitic demagogue. It was equally horrifying to hear from African-American areas that some voters were thinking due to the confusing ballot design they had to vote for both President and Vice President and thus punched 5 (Gore) and 6 (Thinking it’s Lieberman but was actually Buchanan).

The rest of Election Day was about scrambling. Elected officials like Senator Ron Klein and State Representative-Elect Irving Slosberg (who had just won a close shave runoff a month earlier against the full might of the party apparatus) came out to polling places to urge people to not worry about names just – PUNCH FIVE (Al Gore’s punch number). In some areas as people walked into polling places groups of volunteers would just scream PUNCH FIVE! 

We had enough success in educating voters at the polls as to the trouble that damage was minimized to about 3,000 Buchanan votes and about 18,000 over votes. We thought it would be much worse. But we had no idea the national election hinged on Palm Beach County.

As the polls closed at 7 pm ET, the impending sense of doom of earlier in the day had lifted. Active Democrats all over the county had chipped in and minimized the confusion. When major networks based on exit polls put Florida in the Gore column we were relieved. We had done the job, and besides what difference would a dew thousand spoiled votes here due in a national election? We were sweeping the county as well with Republicans being swept out of office in a Gore/Nelson wave (Bill Nelson ran slightly ahead of Gore in Palm Beach County, but that was logical given the lack of ballot confusion in his race – an irony as we sit today contemplating the end of Senator Nelson’s public career thanks to a flawed ballot design in Broward County). 

The later stages of Election Night remain a blur other than two things- one was calling Mike Kaplan, then Senator Skip Campbell’s aide around 10 pm or so who ominously warned me the networks were considering pulling the projection of Gore. Then an hour or two later I recall  being grabbed by Chairman Friedkin  and whisked out of the victory party being held at a hotel by Palm Beach International Airport around 1 am. We then went to the Supervisor of Elections office to demand inspection of ballots and a county-wide recount. We had won all the county constitutional offices turning out multiple GOP incumbents- that had been my primary focus leading into Election Day beyond my statewide work for George Sheldon. This was because it seemed like Gore and Nelson were fine locally and in the hands of capable people sent down from Washington. But suddenly the weight of the world had been thrust on us in Palm Beach County, and all our lives would change.  

The next two days – the world descends on Palm Beach County

The next few days were a whirlwind. I didn’t leave the SOE until about 3 am and was back at party HQ at 7 am. I slept for a few hours in-between.

When I arrived at local party HQ, security had shown up and I had to explain who I was and was escorted in. A mob scene of angry Democrats had shown up outside and inside volunteers were already cranking on the phone lines. Even in the run up to Election Day, the place had not been so alive. 

I was up all day and brainstorming with local lawyers, DC attorneys and political people who were flying in from Washington, Boston, Nashville and all points in-between. Much of my work was with the political team from DC.  The long day and night culminating with a meeting at Friedkin’s office where I was finally told by one of the operatives from DC after midnight, “go get some sleep, we need you alert and not hyper on adrenaline.” She was right because things were just getting going. 

I don’t recall what happened Thursday other than Donnie Fowler, Gore’s national Political Director and son of DNC Chair Don Fowler from South Carolina showing up in Palm Beach and realizing I was somehow not like the other local yokel’s he was keeping at arm’s length because, I had George Sheldon’s seal of approval. Sheldon had by this time assumed a critical role on the Tallahassee end of the recount, working closely with the Gore and DNC inner circles. 

At one point, Fowler proposed having me help lead a team of canvassers to get affidavits from those who had made ballot errors but resources and time were not on our side and we aborted the plan. The clock was ticking before the results would be certified.

Picking precincts to try and force a recount

When my life winds down, perhaps November 10, 2000 will end up being my biggest claim to fame and impact. That was the Friday where due to fortuitous circumstances, my role in the 2000 Presidential Election suddenly became critical. 

Friday was the critical day. We needed to get a full recount in Palm Beach County by proving deviation from the recorded results to the canvassing board Saturday. The Florida Democratic Party’s operatives had sent down three precincts they proposed to have the canvassing board count – the three most Democratic precincts in county.

Lance Block, one of Gore’s local attorney’s (and at the time, President of the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers) decided he wanted myself and an attorney Steven Meyer to review the precinct selection. As the Palm Beach Post ‘s George Bennett reported (behind a pay wall in the Post archives), Meyer and I felt the precinct selection was wrong and switched to find the most precincts with under-votes in the county.

Block recommended to the DC lawyers they go with our precincts and that decision was made. Ultimately, the lawyers despite great pressure stuck with our choices and we got a full recount. For those who may not know, Block and I would be reunited years later on George Sheldon’s 2014 Attorney General campaign.

Saturday November 11 – it begins on Veterans Day 

Getting to the County Administrative offices early Saturday, all hell was about the break loose. Palm Beach County’s government was still at this moment controlled by Republicans as our new constitutional officers and commissioners had not taken office yet.

The day was crazy. First we did really well with a hand count in one of the precincts Meyer and I selected, but the canvassing board than changed the standard AND the Bush campaign sued to halt the recount. (My quote in the linked New York Times article talks about an 11 vote Gore margin in a single test precinct that was NEVER RECORDED OFFICIALLY WHEN THE RACE WAS CERTIFIED BY KATHERINE HARRIS AND THEREFORE NEVER COUNTED)

We were able to convince the canvassing board to proceed to a full recount that day. But while the Republicans got angrier and angrier, we got more passive in the press. I was asked to stop talking to the media, though Florida press which knew me still contacted me.

Liberal Congressman Rob Wexler who had been an effectively angry spokesperson disappeared from national TV screens replaced by the more passive and moderate Klein.

Going forward, Democrats began talking about the rule of law and due process while Republicans used the institutions and plain thuggery like the Roger Stone driven “Brooks Brothers” riot in Miami to achieve the end goal of victory without counting all the votes. (as of this writing, I and others are attempting to gather evidence as to Stone’s possible involvement in this week’s riotous scenes in Fort Lauderdale/Lauderhill).

At the time, I thought it looked more dignified to have Klein out front instead of Wexler. But in subsequent years, I realized that was part of the passivity of Democrats that has allowed the GOP to essentially bully us around.

That night, I was with Rep. Slosberg when the infamous claims that he had stolen a voting machine took place. All Slobserg had wanted to do was to demonstrate to elderly constituents and the national media how easily someone could be confused and vote incorrectly. Instead, Slosberg’s “theft” (actually borrowing) of a voting machine became fodder for right wing media and talk radio to accuse him and by extension me of manufacturing votes and stuffing ballot boxes.

Jesse Jackson visits Century Village

Exhausted, I finally got some sleep and some sense of normalcy. Then in the afternoon, I got a call from Slosberg’s chief aide Lawrence Victoria. He and Slosberg were planning on bringing Reverend  Jesse Jackson into Century Village, a largely Jewish condo west of Boca Raton. However, the visit was unannounced.

Along with Congressman Wexler’s Chief of Staff Eric Johnson and several other luminaries, we somehow got into the village and Slosberg delivered an incredibly large crowd at the Temple. Jackson spoke eloquently and asked the largely elderly Jewish crowd not to despair and to keep working, justice would prevail and Gore would win. Everyone left the event incredibly pumped and confident.  Unfortunately such idealism was misplaced as we would soon find out.

Intimidation, dilatory tactics and the Brooks Brothers Riot

I was almost on constant recount duty including trips to Tallahassee and Fort Myers for recount related activities. Every day was a new adventure and 18 years later the events after the first week tend to blend together. I was at the count or at party HQ for 14-16 hours a day and was responsible for much of the day-to-day organization of teams of observers (non-lawyers) for the recount.  I had won the trust of the attorney’s earlier in the process but never did completely jive well with the messaging people.

At one point Rep. Susan Bucher, my closest elected official friend at the time in county had scolded me for being off message when I spoke to the media – I told Rep. Bucher the messaging was stale and safe. We had to talk about theft and intimidation. Why? Because every single day I went to the recount I felt intimidated. From the organized mob of Republican protesters outside the building to unfriendly GOP observers who used dilatory and psychological tactics to wear us down to the hostility of Republican elected officials like Congressman Mark Foley and County Commissioner Mary Ballard McCarty, intimidation was the name of the Republican game.

The last day we counted in Palm Beach we held a rally on a hill near the Emergency Operations Center. As I stood on stage I felt scared, that a mob of angry frat boy Republicans who had shown up were ready to charge us. They didn’t attacks us, but as Reverend Thomas Masters, a controversial African-American preacher from Riviera Beach said that the reason Palm Beach had been singled out by conservatives to steal the election was because of the large percentage of African-Americans and Jews in the county, I felt ill at ease. I was thinking at that moment this was exactly why the mob had come – to attack blacks and Jews, along with this one Indian guy.

Current ACU President Matt Schlapp a frequent guest on cable news shows participated in the Brooks Brothers Riot By Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54308253

The mob looked the same to me as the one that days earlier  attacked now State Rep Joe Geller, then the local Miami-Dade Democratic Party  Chairman. This mob which shut down the recount in Miami-Dade County was made up of frat boy hoodlums organized by Roger Stone, and Congressman John Sweeney. That incident forever changed this state and opened a new chapter in Florida politics.

My view of the Brooks Brothers riot in Miami, the scenes I was made aware of outside the counting in Fort Lauderdale and the intimidation I faced in West Palm Beach taught me a few real lessons:

1- When Republicans need muscle in deep blue south Florida, they can import them from other parts of the country. Don’t get too comfortable in south Florida, because their are masses of Republicans every where else in this state .                                        2- A certain element of frat boy Republican can be put in suits, elected to public office and given titles to appear respectable, but these GOPers are essentially street brawling hooligans who thrive on the politics of thuggery. These are important lessons for 2018 recount participants as large elements of Florida’s Republican Party has been taken over by similar hoodlums.

The next day I told, The Chicago Tribune so many people would have voting errors on their conscience forever. Unfortunately I was right. So many of those I knew in Palm Beach have since passed on, saddened by what happened in front of their very eyes.

Eventually I was sent to Lee County to head our recount team there, in a county with zero Democratic infrastructure.  I was in Fort Myers when the US Supreme Court halted our recount and handed George W. Bush the Presidency.

As I told the LA Times after the recount ended, Florida took a beating.

Lesson: Republicans will do anything to win. 

Governor Scott will do anything to win, like most Republicans. Governor Elect Rick Scott poses for portraits at the Hilton Marina Hotel on Thursday, November 4, 2010, in Fort Lauderdale, FL. Photo by Shealah Craighead

The gangster element that has taken control of Republican Party politics in Florida since 2010 was a fringe element in a party that in 2000 was more moderate than the national party. But during the recount, Florida Republicans were forced to import thugs from outside to get the desired intimidation element that had been perfected in places such as Texas.

Florida’s GOP of 2000 wasn’t full of Matt Gaetz’s and Rick Scott’s. It was largely made up country club conservatives that had spent most of their career sucking up to Democrats in power. While they were conservatives by and large, they also believed in a basic collegiality no longer practiced by most Republican elected officials in this state. 

The recount changed the tenor of the Republican Party forever. The GOP learned how to use the levers of government, vigilante tactics, dilatory actions in a recount and frivolous court fillings to steal an election. Having gotten away with it in 2000 with more passive leadership, the GOP is almost certain to win in 2018, with virtual gangsters running the party against a generation of neutered, powerless Democrats. The more things change, the more they stay the same for our snake-bitten state. 

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