Election Night 2000

Election Night 2000

With the voting results from Florida too close to call, NPR News is unable to announce a winner for U.S. The country will wait 36 more days before the contest between Republican candidate Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore is decided.

First of a two-part series

In January and February the role of the US television networks in the events of election night (November 7-8) 2000 came under scrutiny in a number of quarters. On January 4, CBS News issued an 87-page report on its election night coverage. The same day, NBC News released a much shorter study. At the end of the month CNN, the all-news cable network, issued a report on its own performance. In the middle of February, amidst a flurry of publicity, the House Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing at which the heads of the major news networks were questioned by a congressional panel.

This official political and media discussion centers on the two “mistaken” calls of the presidential vote in Florida made by the television networks election night—first, for Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic Party candidate, at around 7:50 p.m. (retracted at about 10:00 p.m.) second, for Texas Governor George W. Bush, the Republican candidate, at approximately 2:15 a.m. (retracted around 4:00 a.m.). The Florida vote was declared “too close to call” early on the morning of November 8 and a five-week political crisis ensued, which ended with the installation of Bush in the White House on the basis of an anti-democratic ruling by five right-wing Supreme Court justices.

Television executives have engaged in a good deal of breast-beating over the past four months about their errors election night. But, as is often the case in contemporary American political life, the issues not discussed in the public debate are the most significant ones.

Long experience has demonstrated that those engaged in a whitewash are often advised, for the sake of credibility, to acknowledge errors, lapses, or even minor transgressions, so as to avoid revealing serious wrongdoings. Such is the case here.

The official examination of the networks' conduct has been so framed as to exclude any discussion of the more general and crucial questions—whether Bush gained office through fraudulent and undemocratic means, and whether the mass media were complicit. The CBS, NBC and CNN reports, as well as the Congressional hearings, are classic examples of a cover-up, and a rather shabby one at that.

The committees set up at both CBS and NBC to look into their performances and produce reports included two network executives, plus an academic CNN hired three outsiders, including right-wing columnist Ben Wattenberg.

All three reports are both self-serving and superficial. In relation to the problem of mistaken “calls,” each of the studies makes more or less the same recommendations: more oversight, less pressure to be the first network to make a call, less reliance on voter exit surveys, no projection of a winner in a given state until all its polling places have closed (in 12 states polls do not close at the same time), clarification of language used on broadcasts (not “Gore wins Florida,” for example, but “CBS News, based on exit polls, projects or estimates that Gore will win Florida”), uniform national poll closings.

Each of the reports places the major onus for the Florida miscalls on the Voter News Service (VNS), the organization that collects vote totals and conducts exit polls for all the major television networks and for the Associated Press (AP).

VNS is a story in itself, and one about which, until the problems on November 7, very few Americans knew anything. (As the CBS report authors observe, VNS only began to be mentioned by name on air when it became apparent that mistakes had been made. The networks were content to claim sole credit for their calls as long as they proved correct. There is a further, political purpose for making VNS the whipping boy, which we will discuss below.)

Until 1964 ABC, CBS, NBC, AP and United Press International (which no longer exists) each carried out its own vote tabulations and analyses on election day. In the New Hampshire primary, for example, each of the television networks would have telephones installed at some 300 polling places. As a cost-cutting and efficiency measure, the three networks and two wire services created the News Election Service (NES) in the summer of 1964 to keep a running total of the vote on election day. In 1990, the same networks and AP, plus the newcomer CNN, established Voter Research and Surveys (VRS) to do the same with exit polls and estimates.

It would be naïve to imagine that such a joint effort by huge corporations in competition with one another for advertising dollars could be a smooth-running operation. Indeed, the CBS report hints at this, indicating that from “VRS's inception, there were heated debates among the members, the first occurring over whether the CBS or ABC election unit would be the core of the new pool.”

CBS won out, but when VRS and NES were merged in 1993 into VNS, the difficulties apparently continued. In the 1990 and 1992 elections all calls had been made by VRS personnel, and communicated directly to the networks and by them to the public. In 1994, ABC, presumably still rankling from its organizational defeat within the combined service, formed its own decision team (using VNS data) and called several races before VNS and the other members. In response, all the networks formed their own decision teams, CBS and CNN creating a joint team. (Fox News joined VNS in 1996.)

On election day, VNS communicates its vote totals and exit poll findings to the networks and the AP (which maintains its own independent vote tabulation) and the latter organizations' “decision teams” make the determination when to call a state for a particular candidate. Not surprisingly, the calls are generally made within minutes and even seconds of each other.

For example, the projection that Gore had won Florida, based on VNS data, was made by NBC at 7:49:40 p.m., CBS at 7:50:11 p.m., Fox and VNS itself at 7:52 p.m. and ABC at 8:02 p.m.. An individual network's bragging rights, which undoubtedly have a cash value with advertisers, stem from how many “first calls” it makes.

The creation of VNS, logical from one point of view—why should there be six different organizations collecting voting data?—is, from another, bound up with corporate economic considerations and retrograde social trends.

The five networks and AP contributed a combined $33 million to fund VNS in the “election cycle,” including the primaries and culminating in the November 2000 election. Each individual network, in other words, spent a mere fraction of the cost of an individual episode of a successful television series such as Friends or ER on “Decision 2000,” or whatever other pretentious name each gave its coverage.

Such cost-cutting is part of a broader trend. Television coverage of the elections has declined sharply in scope and seriousness over the past several decades. This constitutes an element of the general decay of the electoral process—the narrowing of differences between the two parties, the coarsening of debate, the growing alienation of broad layers of the public, the increasingly predictable and pro forma character of election campaigns—all of this taking place within the context of growing social polarization.

What the network reports do not discuss

The various reports on the television networks' election coverage fail to make reference to two of the most remarkable, and interconnected, developments that took place on election night: the extraordinary governor's mansion press conference held by Bush, and related Republican efforts to pressure the networks into retracting their call for Gore in Florida and the role played by Bush's first cousin, John Ellis, head of Fox News' decision team.

The projection made by all the networks by 8 p.m. of a Gore victory in Florida was considered a fatal blow to Bush's hopes, particularly when it was followed by the declaration of a Gore triumph in Pennsylvania. At this point panic reportedly set in within the Texas governor's camp.

Instead of continuing to watch the returns at the Four Seasons Hotel in Austin, Bush and his entourage abruptly moved to the governor's mansion. Florida Governor Jeb Bush, the candidate's brother, telephoned his cousin, Ellis, at Fox and asked him about the networks' claim of a Gore victory in Florida. “Are you sure?”, he asked Ellis, to which Ellis reportedly replied, “We're looking at a screen full of Gore.”

The Bush forces began a campaign to reverse the networks' call in Florida. Mary Matalin, a Republican media operative, raised doubts about the Gore call on CNN. At around 9:30 p.m. Karl Rove, Bush's chief political strategist, went on NBC and admonished the networks. “I would also suggest that Florida has been prematurely called,” he declared. “First of all, I thought it was a little bit irresponsible of the networks to call it [for Gore] before the polls closed in the western part of Florida. Florida is still split among two time zones, eastern and central. You all called it before the polls had closed in the central part of the country.”

This was the first reference to what was to become a minor right-wing rallying cry: the claim that the networks cost Bush votes by projecting a Gore victory before the polls were closed in the more heavily Republican northwestern corner of Florida. While there is an issue of principle here—candidates and voters have a right to expect that the networks will withhold their election calls until the polls in any given state have closed—in relation to the outcome of the 2000 election, the “early” call in Florida is essentially a red herring.

The polls in Florida's eastern time zone closed at 7:00 p.m. at that point, only 5 percent of the voting-age population, according to the CBS report, had not voted. Moreover, the networks actually began calling the election for Gore at 7:50 p.m. in the east (6:50 central time), only 10 minutes before the polls closed in the Florida panhandle.

Rove's appearance on NBC was followed by an impromptu press conference held by Bush in the governor's mansion at around 9:50 p.m., an event unprecedented in US election night annals. Bush chastised the networks for their calls in Florida and Pennsylvania, saying both states were too close to call. This extraordinary intervention by a presidential candidate has been all but forgotten (or passed over) in the media coverage of election night. None of the networks' reports even refer to it, and a supposedly hard-hitting article in Brill's Content by Seth Mnookin (“It Happened One Night”) simply mentions in passing “a defiant appearance by Bush.”

Yet on November 8 an article in the Washington Post was relatively forthright:

“All the turmoil in Florida produced an extraordinary bit of television drama, with four networks abruptly backing off their projection that Gore would win Florida's crucial 25 electoral votes. They did so after Bush allowed cameras into the Texas governor's mansion so he could insist that the Florida contest was not over.

“At 10 p.m., CBS, ABC and CNN all said they were moving Florida into the undecided category, more than two hours after they had used exit-poll data to call the state for Gore. NBC followed 15 minutes later.

“The networks' flip-flop came about 10 minutes after they aired an unusual videotape in which Bush, with his father, mother and wife, challenged the television projections in Florida and Pennsylvania. ‘The people actually counting the votes have come to a different perspective. I'm pretty darned upbeat about things,' said Bush, undoubtedly with an eye on turning out his supporters in western states.

“The network reversal quickly changed the commentary, which had increasingly been saying it would be very difficult for Bush to beat Gore after having lost Florida, Michigan and Pennsylvania.”

The networks have since claimed there was ample data flowing in to justify their retraction of the Gore call in Florida. Whatever the case, it would be hard to argue that the unprecedented pressure applied by the Bush camp had no impact on television network executives, who are generally indifferent to the sentiments of the population at large, but extremely sensitive to the demands of the corporate and political establishment.

Telephone conversations between the Bushes and their cousin at Fox continued into the night. These remarkable facts—that the presidential candidate's brother was in charge of the government (and vote tabulating) apparatus in the contested state, and that their first cousin held a critical position on the decision team of a major network charged with calling the election—have provoked little debate or even comment in the media or, for that matter, from the liberal establishment or the Democratic Party. This, despite the fact that Rupert Murdoch's Fox News, with Ellis leading its decision desk, was the first network to declare Bush the victor in Florida at 2:16 in the morning.

Notwithstanding the indifference of the media and the political officialdom, the role of Ellis and Fox News raises some obvious and pointed questions:

What, if anything, did George W. Bush and his brother Jeb know about the vote in Florida that the public did not? Why were they apparently so certain Florida would end up in their camp? What discussions took place between Bush operatives and John Ellis of Fox News?

Did, in fact, George W. Bush or his associates, through Bush's cousin, call the election for George W. Bush?

On numerous occasions, through all the largely manufactured scandals of the Clinton years and beyond, Whitewater Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr or Republicans in Congress have subpoenaed witnesses and impounded records either to obtain information they thought might incriminate or embarrass Clinton, or to generate the appearance of criminal behavior, or simply to harass.

It is, however, a remarkable fact that in this case, concerning the result of a presidential election, no one has demanded that the Bush team's phone logs or notes be produced.

The psychological and political importance of having Bush declared the winner in Florida, and hence nationally, was enormous. It was no doubt an important element in the calculations of Ellis and the Republican camp. From that moment onward, a section of the public, encouraged by the Republicans and the media, viewed Bush as the legitimate winner and Gore the “sore loser.”

The failure of the CBS, NBC and CNN reports even to refer to Ellis or to Bush's election night press conference is sufficient to brand them as travesties.

What the network reports disclose

Each report takes as its starting point the legitimacy of the final outcome of the election crisis: the suppression of votes in Florida and installation of Bush.

The NBC report is perfunctory. Of the two longer studies, CBS's is the more informative. Typically, while feeling no need to respond to the widespread sentiment that the Bush election was fraudulent and his administration illegitimate, the CBS authors are sensitive to every allegation of the Republican right wing, no matter how far-fetched.

The CBS report, for example, disputes the accusation that early calls by the television networks affect the outcome of voting (i.e., that residents of areas where polls are still open will be discouraged from voting by projections of a national or state winner). The report's authors expose several so-called studies of the Florida vote as the work of “Republican partisans, not unbiased observers.”

They reject, albeit diplomatically, the charge made by Republican Congressman W. J. “Billy” Tauzin of Louisiana that the networks demonstrated bias for Gore by delaying calling states for Bush. This absurd allegation, originally made by Tauzin, the chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, on November 9 and repeated in a letter to the network news organizations December 11, formed the initial justification for the February hearing in Washington where the television news executives testified.

The authors of the CBS report observe that the mistaken calls of the networks pale in comparison to a more serious issue, the “dirty little secret” of American politics: in their words, that US elections are “prone to human error, mechanical error, confusion and disorganization,” with some two million votes being thrown out for every 100 million cast.

They comment: “We have heard much about the punch-card ballots in Florida. But we now know that a third of the country votes by punch-card ballots. In Cook County, Illinois [Chicago], in this election, more than 120,000 punch-card ballots were discarded. In Detroit, some polling places did not have enough electronic voting pens to service the voting booths. In Massachusetts, 30,000 votes were left uncounted in 51 precincts because of human error. In New Mexico, election officials thought that a handwritten notation about absentee votes from one precinct indicated 120 votes for Gore, when the actual number was 620.”

The CNN report, about whose “independence” the network made a great fuss, is the more explicitly reactionary in its political outlook. As opposed to the other networks' commentators, the authors of the CNN study express definite concern over the extent to which the networks' mistaken calls inflamed a volatile political situation.

In their introduction, they write: “The uncertainty about who had won Florida, engendered by the closeness of the Florida contest, but exacerbated by the mis-reporting, turned out to play an unhealthy role in the subsequent tense and potentially dangerous post-election controversy until the final determination of the race after more than a month in a climate of public rancor.”

In the section entitled “Recommendations,” the CNN report returns to this theme: “There is no shortage of angry Americans who at any given moment believe something ‘unfair' has happened in the world's model democracy. The weeks following the Florida election led to complaints about bias and/or lack of competence in the broadcast media, and helped set an angry tone in the country concerning the outcome of the election. One would think that only great benefit might tempt major news organizations to risk placing even an extra twig on that fire.”

Here the authors of the CNN report barely conceal their contempt for the American people, whom they disparage for presuming to believe that the “world's model democracy” could possibly be unfair. It does not occur to them that a contradiction might exist between the admission that a great many Americans “at any given moment” think something “unfair” is happening, on the one hand, and their glowing characterization of American democracy, on the other.

Concerning the actual events of November 7-8, the CBS and CNN reports paint similar pictures. Taking into account that both reports leave entirely out of the picture the machinations of the Bush camp, what follows is the official version of the mistaken calls in the Florida vote.

The call for Gore

Between 7:00 and shortly after 8:00 p.m., all indicators strongly suggested to VNS analysts that Gore was heading for victory in Florida, and by a considerable margin. At 7:48 p.m. NBC became the first television network to declare Gore the projected winner in Florida, followed by the other networks, AP and VNS itself within the next 15 minutes.

At 8:10 p.m. the CNN-CBS decision team reviewed the Florida data and concluded that the exit polls had underestimated Gore's victory margin by nearly 4 percent. The team was more convinced than before of a Gore win. Between 9:00 and 9:45 p.m., however, the projected Gore lead failed to materialize. Faced with a Bush lead in the actual tabulated vote, all the networks began to consider pulling back from the Gore call. They did so at 10:00 or shortly after. At 10:16 VNS officially retracted its call for the Democratic candidate.

It is necessary, however, to submit these events to closer examination.

Voter News Service is a well-tested organization. However one may feel about the practice of projecting winners in elections as early as possible, and the motives for doing so, VNS personnel have a considerable expertise in that sort of work. In determining the projected winner in a given state, the service's statisticians require that there be less than a 1 in 200 chance of error. The VNS analysis in Florida was based on a combination of exit polls (voters were queried in 45 precincts), the state's tabulated raw vote, county models, past voting patterns, current projections and unofficial results supplied to the service by poll workers in 120 precincts.

The following calculations are based on the CNN and CBS references to VNS's internal report, which was only made available to its member news organizations. Since percentages alone are mentioned by CNN and CBS, not actual numbers, some degree of approximation is required.

At 7:50, 50 minutes after most of the state's polls had closed, VNS projected Gore winning Florida by 7.3 percent, or approximately 52.5 to 45.2 percent. Taking into account that more people ultimately showed up at the polls in Florida (nearly six million voted) than VNS had projected, its 7.3 percent estimate was probably somewhere in the range of 400,000 votes. This is, relatively speaking, a huge margin. Bill Clinton won Florida in 1996 by 5.7 percent (or some 300,000 votes). Gore won Michigan and Pennsylvania, two of the other critical races, by 4 percent.

VNS apparently made a number of projections between 7 p.m. and some time after 8, but they all indicated a Gore victory. Louis Boccardi of AP, in his testimony before Congress, noted that “shortly after 7 p.m. Eastern time . the VNS exit polling data were indicating that Mr. Gore could win by a margin of more than 6 percent.” This is confirmed by the CNN report, which refers to “VNS exit polling information supplied to the CNN/CBS Decision Team show[ing] Gore leading Bush in Florida by 6.6 per cent.” According to Mnookin in Brill's Content, at 7:40 p.m. VNS estimated a 51.1 to 46.5 percent victory (a 4.5 percent margin) for Gore.

At 7:45 VNS information suggested that the first returns indicated, if anything, that the exit polls had been overstating the Bush vote. The CBS report states: “The average error within those precincts suggested that the survey was actually underestimating the Gore lead by 1.7 percentage points.”

In his statement before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on February 14, Ted Savaglio, executive director of VNS, declared: “On Election Night our statistical models, based on our exit polls and actual vote from a number of sample precincts, showed Vice President Gore ahead—decisively it seemed—in Florida. Our decision team considered other variables, including absentee vote beyond that which already was accounted for in the models, and determined that the data clearly justified making a call, which we did shortly before 8:00 p.m..”

By 8:10 p.m., the data, including actual votes, pointing toward a Gore victory was so convincing that all the networks apparently felt confident in the projections they had made. (It must have been around this time that Ellis told Jeb Bush, the Florida governor, “We're looking at a screen full of Gore.”) The CNN-CBS Decision Team reviewed the Florida data and concluded that the exit poll had underestimated the Gore victory margin by nearly 4 percent. According to the CNN report, “That, along with other sets of data, makes the team more certain of a Gore win there.”

The decision team members later reported to the two networks: “Even if we had not made the Gore projection at 7:50, we surely would have made the projection looking at this data at 8:10. In our many years of examining decision screens we do not believe that there has ever been a single instance in which the leader changed in a race in which we had this much data from survey, VPA [Voter Profile Analysis], and county vote and ten estimators all showing a six point lead or more. Presented with this consistent data there was no reason to justify not calling this race. We would not have been doing our jobs if we had not called this race at this time when presented with this data. If we cannot believe data this convincing from VNS the entire purpose of our Decision Team is undermined” (emphasis added—DW).

The implication here is that the VNS data and projections were drastically wrong, but the comment is perhaps more suggestive than the authors suspect.

When Did We Start to Expect Results on Election Night?

In the lead-up to election night, Twitter is full of pleas to news outlets not to do what Donald Trump wants and announce definitive election results on Tuesday evening, before states have a chance to count their mail-in and absentee ballots. Trump has explicitly appealed to tradition (“that’s the way it’s been, that’s the way it should be”) in making his case for a call “night of.” But when did it become an American expectation that we would know who won on election night?

I spoke with Ira Chinoy, a former journalist and now a historian of journalism at the University of Maryland, about the history of media outlets “calling it” on election night. We talked about people camping outside of newspaper offices, desperate for information, in the 19 th century the fallout from some of the most famous failed calls and why the media’s involvement in calling election outcomes is a good thing for democracy.

Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Rebecca Onion: It seems like the history of results being announced on election night, or near to it, starts in 1848—the first time there was actually an “Election Day,” instead of a longer period of voting, and the first time it was possible for the AP to use the telegraph to collect the news of the way people voted. Is that right?

Ira Chinoy: Right, yes. [Morse’s] telegraph was about four years old then, and the AP had grown up around sharing dispatches from the Mexican-American War. But there wasn’t a transcontinental link until 1861. In between, there was the Pony Express to fill in the gaps in telegraph lines between East and West. But even when there was a transcontinental link, the whole country wasn’t completely wired, really. Results needed to come in from distant precincts on horseback, carriage, or train—whatever it happened to be.

And so, is it fair to say that in the 19 th century, the news media kind of saw a hole to fill, and started reporting results on election night?

I don’t think the news media created an appetite for the results to be known on election night. I think this is the appetite: the democratic impulse. People want to know everybody wants to know. In the 1850s, ’60s, and ’70s, people would hang around newspaper offices waiting for returns to come in—not to buy newspapers on that night, but simply for them to announce the results by posting sheets of paper with returns or making announcements. Take the famous election of 1876, which was Hayes vs. Tilden, and which didn’t resolve until 1877, when the parties came to some kind of agreement. For days after the election, the New York Times reported that people were milling around the newspaper offices, waiting for any scrap of information.

It’s funny—it’s portrayed like the news media are these people who have come in and taken advantage of the situation [in pushing to announce a winner as soon as possible], which is really not correct at all, in my mind. This is driven by public appetite. Elections are a case of social inversion—a time when people at the bottom have something to say. The world is driven by the power brokers in our society, corporations, government, churches, but this happens to be the day when an ordinary person has a say. So if you’ve got an excess of a hundred million people voting, you’ve got an excess of a hundred million people who really want to know the outcome. I don’t think it’s a demand that’s ever been created by the news media they’ve simply answered a public interest in knowing as soon as possible.

What was the level of trust in what the AP was saying about elections in the 19 th century—what authority did it have? Were candidates saying, The AP said I won, so I’m going to claim victory?

I’m not sure I can answer that question, but I haven’t seen anything where people were challenging the vote counts as reported. Challenges to media “calling” the elections are really not so much about the counts, but about the projections.

People like the editor of the Boston Globe, Charles Taylor, became kind of famous for the system he invented that was first used in the 1880s, based on the idea of key precincts and bellwether areas. He would divide the state up into different kinds of areas, projecting based on continuity or diversions from past votes. And nobody else was doing that, yet, but there were other newspaper people who were famous for keeping these big books of data, being able on election night to see how the vote was diverging from the past. But Taylor had this system that worked so well, even political officials would come down to the newspaper to find out what the projection was. But there were other journalists who were reluctant to project winners, before all the votes were counted.

So it wasn’t something that was automatically accepted there was a debate over it. It took a lot of courage to say so-and-so has won, before all the votes were counted. Really the test is, how well does a final vote count compare to everything people were projecting. There were famous cases where it didn’t work out—1916, 1948—but in the vast majority of cases, the news media were right in how they called those elections. What we remember were the ones that are particularly problematic.

When radio came along, did radio take over the function of calling elections on election night?

If they did, it would probably have been because they had access to the AP or some other kind of wire service. We didn’t really get robust radio network news departments until about the 1930s, 1940s. In that era, right into about World War II, there was a lot of conflict between the radio world and the newspapers—they called it “The Press-Radio War.” And some of it was a battle over reporting election returns. And radio kind of backed away from doing that for a while. They finally did develop their own robust news departments, but if they called it, it probably would have been based on something that came from the wires.

Even if we’re talking about newspapers calling elections during that period, they’re still doing it based on the wires. We didn’t have newspapers that have robust nationwide news operations in that period of time—or I should say, no news organization had reporters in enough individual places to do original reporting. It had to be a collaborative effort.

How did the advent of network TV news change the scene? Was there ever a moment where it became clear that the AP versus news networks were competing to call the election in different ways?

Election Night 2000 - HISTORY

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Al Gore's presidential concession brings an apparent end to one of the most eventful months in American electoral history -- one filled with developments in state capitals and courtrooms. Following are the major developments in Election 2000, beginning on Election Day:

November 7: Election Day. Shortly before 8 p.m. EST, all of the major television networks estimate that Gore has beaten Texas Gov. George W. Bush in the key state of Florida -- but as the night goes on and results come in from the state's Panhandle region, networks are forced to retract the estimate.

Meanwhile, the race remains extraordinarily close across the nation. Gore takes the battleground states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Illinois Bush claims Ohio, Tennessee and Missouri and the candidates claim other major states they were expected to win. As the night goes on, it becomes clear that the victor in Florida will win the electoral votes necessary to claim the presidency.

November 8: A series of early-morning events set the stage for a protracted presidential battle. First, by about 2:15 a.m., the major networks call Florida and the election for Bush. Gore, hearing that he probably will lose Florida by about 50,000 votes, calls the Texas governor and concedes.

But 45 minutes later, while Gore is en route to a rally in Nashville to give a concession address, aides reach him and tell him the news: Bush's lead in Florida has shrunk dramatically and the Texas governor's lead is only a few thousand votes at best.

Gore calls Bush. "Let me make sure I understand," the Texas governor said, according to a report in Time magazine. "You're calling me back to retract your concession." Bush tells Gore that Bush's brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, has assured the Texas governor that he has won Florida. "Your younger brother is not the ultimate authority on this," Gore replies.

Gore never gives the public address. Instead, he sends out his campaign chairman, former Commerce Secretary Bill Daley, to speak to the crowd. Although Gore is ready to concede if there is a clear sign he has lost Florida, "Our campaign continues," Daley said.

By 4:15 a.m., the major networks are forced to pull the estimate that Bush is the president-elect.

The nation's focus immediately turns to Florida -- even though the election is also too close to call in Wisconsin, Iowa, New Mexico and Oregon -- and within hours, questions are raised about voting in some areas. In Palm Beach County, an unexpectedly large vote for third-party candidates leads to questions about the "butterfly ballot" there, where the names of candidates are placed on the left and right columns of a page and a series of punch holes are found in a center column. Large numbers of disqualified ballots, or ballots where no vote is registered for president, are found in other counties.

Bush and Gore's campaigns respond by sending teams of lawyers to Florida. The close race triggers an automatic recount of ballots under state law.

Many Americans hear the word "chad" -- a reference to the small piece of paper punched out of punchcard ballots -- for the first time. Soon, "hanging chad," "dimpled chad" and "pregnant chad" are phrases that enter everyday conversation.

November 9: Gore's team, led by former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, requests a hand recount of ballots in four Florida counties -- Palm Beach, Dade, Broward and Volusia -- and a circuit judge orders Palm Beach County not to certify its results.

November 10: The Florida machine recount is completed. Unofficial results, gathered by the Associated Press, give Bush a lead of only 327 votes out of nearly 6 million cast.

November 12: Palm Beach County officials vote to conduct a full hand recount of presidential votes Volusia County begins its own hand count Bush's legal team, headed by former Secretary of State James Baker, goes to federal court seeking to block manual recounts. As the days go by, numerous lawsuits from a number of parties spring up in state and federal courts, seeking to block or allow the counts and certifications, seeking access to the ballots, or raising questions about the legal validity of absentee ballots in some counties.

November 13: Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris says she will not extend a deadline of 5 p.m. EST on November 14 for receiving all state election results except for absentee ballots coming from overseas. Gore's team promises a legal challenge. A federal judge turns down the Bush team's attempt to stop manual recounts.

November 14: Palm Beach County votes to temporarily suspend its hand recount Dade County begins a selected hand recount of only about 1 percent of its votes in questioned precincts. Harris delays certification of the state's votes until 2 p.m. EST November 15 so three heavily Democratic counties can explain why they should conduct hand recounts of their ballots.

November 15: Harris says she will not accept further hand recounts and asks the state Supreme Court to order the halt of manual recounts Broward County decides to begin a hand recount AP estimates shrink Bush's lead to only 286 votes.

November 16: Lawyers for Bush submit written arguments to the U.S. federal appeals court in Atlanta to end the recounts. Democrats also filed papers with the federal court to oppose the Republican bid. Attorneys for the Gore campaign file an emergency motion in Leon County state court challenging the certification of the results of the Florida presidential election. The Florida Supreme Court rules Palm Beach County can proceed with a manual recount of ballots.

November 17:The Florida Supreme Court blocks Harris from any vote certification until it can rule on the Democrats' motion to allow hand recounts to be counted. The midnight deadline strikes for counties to receive overseas absentee ballots. Miami-Dade County reverses an earlier decision and votes to conduct a full manual recount. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals denies GOP request to stop manual recounts on constitutional grounds.

November 18: After absentee ballots are counted, uncertified results show Republican George W. Bush leads Democrat Al Gore by 930 votes.

November 20: The Florida Supreme Court holds a hearing on whether Harris should consider hand-recounted ballots before she certifies results of the presidential election. Circuit Judge Jorge Labarga says he lacks authority under the U.S. Constitution to order a new presidential election in Palm Beach County.

November 21: The Florida Supreme Court orders hand counts to continue, and gives counties five days to complete them.

November 22: Bush running mate Dick Cheney suffers a mild heart attack, his fourth. He undergoes surgery to open a constricted artery at a Washington hospital and is released two days later.

November 23: Miami-Dade County officials stop the hand recount there, saying they will not have enough time to complete it before the deadline given by the Florida Supreme Court. Democrats blame the canvassing board's decision on a raucous Republican demonstration, accusing the GOP of intimidating the board into quitting -- a charge Republicans deny.

November 24: To the surprise of many observers, the U.S. Supreme Court agrees to hear Bush's appeal of the Florida high court ruling allowing hand recounts to proceed.

November 26: Harris certifies the results of the Florida vote after the state Supreme Court deadline expires, giving Bush a 537-vote lead over Gore. Harris does not include results from Palm Beach County, which completed its manual recount about two hours after the deadline. Bush says his transition team, led by Cheney, will move forward with planning an administration.

November 27: Gore's lawyers move to contest the Florida result in a circuit court in Tallahassee. Gore tells the nation the result Harris certified wrongly excluded thousands of votes that were never tallied. Meanwhile, the General Services Administration announces it will withhold the funding and office space for planning a transition until the election dispute is resolved.

November 28: N. Sanders Sauls, the judge hearing Gore's election contest, refuses Gore's request for a speedy resolution and sets a December 2 hearing on the case.

November 29: A committee of Florida lawmakers meets to consider whether to convene a special session of the state Legislature to appoint electors on its own. Sauls orders all ballots from Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties -- more than 1 million -- shipped to Tallahassee for possible hand counts in Gore's contest.

November 30: Florida lawmakers vote along party lines to recommend a special session to name electors if the election contest is not resolved by December 12, six days before the Electoral College meets. The Republican-led legislature is expected to name electors pledged to Bush.

December 1: The U.S. Supreme Court hears oral arguments over whether the Florida Supreme Court overstepped its authority by ordering Harris to include the manual recounts in certified state results. Meanwhile, the Florida Supreme Court upholds Sauls' ruling putting off a hand recount in Gore's contest.

December 2: Sauls opens two days of proceedings on Gore's challenge to the Florida results. The vice president asks for a count of about 14,000 "undervotes" from Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties.

December 3: With Gore's election contest in court in Tallahassee, Bush meets with Republican congressional leaders at his Texas ranch to discuss the transition.

December 4: Sauls rejects Gore's contest to the Florida results, finding the vice president failed to show that hand recounts would have affected the results. Gore appeals to the Florida Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court asks the Florida Supreme Court to explain its reasoning in extending the hand recounts, returning the case to Tallahassee and putting off any action in Bush's appeal objecting to the recounts.

December 6: Two lawsuits asking judges to toss out some 25,000 absentee ballots in predominantly Republican Seminole and Martin counties go to trial in Tallahassee. Florida House Speaker Tom Feeney and Senate President John McKay, both Republicans, announce the state Legislature will convene to select electors.

December 7: Gore's legal team argues before the Florida Supreme Court that Sauls was wrong to uphold the certification of Florida's election results. Bush's attorneys urge the seven-member panel to let Sauls' decision stand.

2000 | When Election Night Became Election Month

The arc of election night was clear this year before Election Day began.

Fourteen years ago, the arc of election night wasn’t clear when Thanksgiving Day began.

No matter what they may tell you, reporters and editors love a suspenseful election. But the presidential contest of 2000 strained that affection.

Editions of The Times are marked by a declining number of dots between the “Vol.” and “No.” designations at the top of Page 1. Four dots mark the first edition, three dots the next edition and, back in the day, two dots marked the next.

Rarely was there a one-dot edition. And very rarely, when we ran out of dots, was an em-dash used. Essentially, that meant the sun was coming up while the presses were still running.

In the one-dot edition of Nov. 8, 2000, The Times called the presidential race for Gov. George W. Bush. While the banner headline was equivocal (𠇋ush Appears to Defeat Gore”), the lead on the article was unqualified:

“George Walker Bush was elected the 43rd president of the United States yesterday by one of the tightest margins in history, crowning a spectacular and exceptionally brisk political rise only eight years after his own father was turned out of the White House.”

A three-column picture spot that had been split all night between photos of Vice President Al Gore and Mr. Bush at their polling places was given over to a portrait-handsome photo of the governor, smiling broadly and looking very much the president-elect.

By 4 a.m. that morning, however, the tectonic plates had shifted.

For the one-dash final, the banner headline 𠇋ush and Gore Vie for an Edge” was restored from an earlier edition, as was the Gore-Bush diptych. In his lead, Richard L. Berke candidly acknowledged the foul-up:

“The outcome of the presidential race between Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore balanced early this morning on no more than a few thousand votes in the closely contested state of Florida.

“Shortly after 2 a.m., Mr. Bush appeared to have won Florida, and several news organizations, including The New York Times, declared that he had captured the White House. Aides to Mr. Gore said he was preparing his concession speech, while Mr. Bush expected to announce his victory.

𠇋ut later in the morning, as the count in Florida neared an end, the narrow margin that Mr. Bush had achieved unexpectedly evaporated.”

With it went any hope of an early resolution.

𠇏or dozens of us at The New York Times, those 36 days of the Great Post-Election Limbo will live in a special kind of intimate infamy,” Todd S. Purdum wrote in Times Talk, the newspaper’s house organ, about the weeks he and his colleagues spent in Florida while the legal battle played out. 𠇏or a generation unacquainted with military service, it all felt a bit like basic training and combat combined, Biloxi Blues meets the Battle of the Bulging Chad.”

Even the moment that history regards as the turning point — a ruling by the Supreme Court on Dec. 12 that there could be no further counting of Florida’s disputed votes — was cloudy enough that The Times declared, 𠇋ush Prevails,” rather than 𠇋ush Wins.” Nonetheless, a three-column picture spot under the banner headline was given to the same portrait-handsome photo of the governor that had briefly appeared five weeks earlier.

In it, Mr. Bush was smiling broadly and looking very much the president-elect. Which he finally was.

The 2000 Presidential Election

9:00 PM: More polls closed and the election results were updated.

9:15 PM: Ohio was declared for Bush.

9:31 PM: As Gore's home state of Tennessee is called for his opponent, Bush's chief strategist, Karl Rove, takes to the airwaves to dispute the network calls that Florida has gone for Gore.

9:55 PM: In a shrewd move, Bush is presented on TV calmly asserting that his people in Florida assure him that he will win Florida when the votes are counted. Moments later the networks redesignate Florida as "too close to call".

11:22 PM: The progress of the actual vote count in Florida was updated.

1:50 AM: 95 percent of Florida votes had been counted, and Bush led by 38,000 votes.

2:30 AM: With the networks declaring the election over, Vice President Gore called Governor Bush to concede the election and to congratulate him on the win. This was not known in the media until later in the morning.

3:15 AM: Gore's advisers called the Vice President, now enroute to the rally, to tell him that Bush's lead in Florida had diminished dramatically.

3:30 AM: Gore called Bush again, this time to recant his concession. According to later reports, Bush didn't take this very well, and Gore was heard to reply, "well you don't have to get snippy!" With the concession speech cancelled, Gore's motorcade turned around. He returned to the hotel without addressing the rally crowd.

4:04 AM: Bill Daly addressed the Gore supporters at the rally in Nashville and announced that it wasn't over yet. The networks flip-flopped again, this time saying Bush might not have won after all.

4:25 AM: Don Evans addressed the Bush supporters at the rally in Austin. He expressed confidence that the nation has elected George W. Bush the next president of the United States.

The Aftermath and Road Ahead

The long night on the air segued right into TODAY in the morning, where Couric, who had also been part of the coverage the previous night, delivered her famous line.

The networks' news divisions and the Associated Press later faced congressional hearings on how they incorrectly called the election, VNS ultimately went out of business in 2003, and news organizations made major changes to their data-gathering operations for subsequent elections.

Wheatley: The air had just come out of the control room. Just silence. People are so embarrassed. I went back to my office and I'm thinking America's gonna wake up hearing that the race isn't called and that there's a fiasco here.

Sanders: I would say that there are still people in Florida who wonder whether their vote is actually still being counted. The confidence that's been shaken remains today. The real question today is whether the system is compromised by outside influences. We do know that at least two county systems in the last go-round were infiltrated by Russians, per the FBI.

Alongi: It was a tremendous learning experience for all of us. Yes, we had to show up at the Hill and get slapped around by Congress, but no one intentionally did it. I always felt that NBC did the best job we all possibly could.

Brokaw: It’s so much different now because first of all the electronic, warp speed of the passage of information and the ability of people that you have no idea who they are, what their interests are, with a keystroke can change things, quickly. And we’re behind most of the time. There’s people out there who are wiring, if you will, the internet for their advantage, and that’s always been the case.

Lapinski: We had to go through and figure out what went wrong in 2000 and how we could improve our systems. We just invested a ton of effort and work on how to quality control the data. Now we have systems in place that if a number is typed in wrong, it’s flagged, or if numbers are way out of whack, we would immediately know it. There are many more guardrails to make sure to QC the data better, and we’ve invested a lot more in our team on the data analytics side.

Wheatley: One of the good things about broadcast news is that tomorrow is always another day.


KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Election night is just the end of one phase of the 2020 election season and the start of another.

Between the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and intense public interest, many political analysts and experts expect this year to play out very different than most.

“I think we are going to see something exactly like 2000 because if you remember, it came down to one state of Florida, essentially,” attorney Phil LeVota said. “It’s going to be a waiting game. We are not going to know Nov. 3.”

Like many other people, LeVota is shifting his attention to what happens after the election, comparing this year to the chaotic 2000 election between Al Gore and Former President George W. Bush.

The 2000 election became hectic when Florida was too close to call, prompting recounts, lawsuits and a long delay for official presidential ruling.

Some election watchers worry we could be in for another long, disputed election.

“We know it’s a numbers game,” LeVota said. “We know it’s electoral votes, and some of these swing states are going to matter. We could be in court with North Carolina, Florida or Michigan. Some of these states that maybe don’t count all of their ballots until days after the election, and someone might challenge that.”

In the home stretch of the 2020 election, Jackson County is setting voting records ahead of Election Day. Local election officials said hundreds have been coming to vote daily. Monday is the last day for in-person absentee voting.

“I have to work Tuesday,” Ian Clark said of his reason for voting early. “It’s kind of going through pretty quick. I think I’ve only been here about 40 minutes.”

LeVota is encouraging voters to trust the election process.

“We’ve been doing this a long time, this process, and we got it down right across the world, so have faith we will get it done right,” LeVota said. “Our laws are there for a reason.”

Election Night 2000 - HISTORY

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Welcome to CNN election night 2000. I will be your guide. Here are the stories we'll be reporting, hour by hour, as the night goes on. All times are Eastern.

The first polls close in Indiana and Kentucky with 20 electoral votes at stake. Keep an eye on Kentucky: It has voted for the winner in every election since 1964.

Polls close in six more states -- Florida, Georgia, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Vermont and Virginia -- with a total of 66 electoral votes. The big prize is Florida, with 25 electoral votes.

Florida went for President George Bush in 1992, then switched to Bill Clinton in 1996, then elected Jeb Bush governor in 1998. It's this year's biggest battleground state.

We'll look at Jewish voters in Florida, to see if Gore gets a big payoff for naming a Jewish running mate. We'll look at Cuban-American voters, to see if there's any backlash against Al Gore over the Clinton Administration's handling of the Elian Gonzalez affair. We'll look at seniors to see if Bush's Social Security and prescription drug plans are helping him or hurting him in that crucial voting group.

Rep. Bill McCollum, GOP candidate for U.S. Senate from Florida

Florida also has an important Senate race, where the GOP candidate, Rep. Bill McCollum, was one of the House impeachment managers. We'll see if there's any lingering residue of the impeachment controversy.

Another big Senate race is in Virginia, where Charles Robb is the most vulnerable Democrat running for re-election this year.

Polls close in North Carolina, Ohio and West Virginia -- 40 more electoral votes.

Ohio is crucial for Bush. No Republican has ever been elected President without carrying Ohio, a state that went for Clinton twice.

We could have a big surprise in West Virginia, a state that's voted Democratic in eight out of the last 10 elections. Maybe two surprises: West Virginia's Republican Gov. Cecil Underwood is the most vulnerable incumbent governor running for re-election this year.

There's another bitter contest for governor in North Carolina between Democrat Mike Easley and Republican Richard Vinroot. Vinroot has been trying to tie Easley to Al Gore. If Gore loses North Carolina, will he bring Easley down too?

This could be the deciding point in the election. Polls close in 16 states and the District of Columbia, with 202 electoral votes on the line. Three of the states in this class are crucial battlegrounds -- Michigan, Pennsylvania and Missouri.

Gore is depending on unions to deliver Michigan for him. We'll see if Pennsylvania's conservative leanings on abortion and gun rights hurt Gore, and Missouri is a bellwether state that's voted for the winner in every election but one for the past 100 years.

Jean Carnahan, the widow of Gov. Mel Carnahan

Missouri has a bizarre Senate race in which the Democratic candidate, Gov. Mel Carnahan, was killed in a plane crash too late for his name to be removed from the ballot. The new governor says he'll appoint Carnahan's widow to the seat if the late governor actually wins. Can a dead Democrat defeat incumbent Republican Sen. John Ashcroft? And will the loss of the party's popular standard-bearer hurt Gore in Missouri?

In the 8 p.m. hour, we'll find out about two other GOP senators who seem to be in trouble -- Spencer Abraham in Michigan and Bill Roth in Delaware. If they fall, the Republican Senate majority is threatened.

New Jersey has the most expensive Senate race in history. Democrat Jon Corzine has spent over $50 million dollars to win it, but polls show underdog Republican Bob Franks catching up. We'll see if Corzine's big spending creates a backlash.

Then there's the Ralph Nader question: how much will he hurt Gore? The results in Maine will give us our first clue. And here's a ballot question to watch: Will Massachusetts pass a law mandating universal health care for all residents?

Texas and Tennessee also close at 8 p.m. Texas looks like a big win for Bush. But Tennessee is no sure thing for Gore. Gore could become the first candidate who fails to carry his home state since George McGovern in 1972.

At 8:30 p.m, polls close in Arkansas -- only six electoral votes, but it could be an embarrassment if President Clinton's home state goes for Bush.

Twelve more states come in with another 102 electoral votes, including the battleground states of Minnesota and Wisconsin. Will Nader take enough votes from Gore to put those two historically liberal states in the GOP column?

But the headline in the 9 p.m. hour will be New York. There's not much suspense over how New York will vote for president, but there's a lot of suspense over whether New York will send first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton to the Senate. Will she become the first lady who overreached or the first lady who made it on her own? We'll look at how the carpetbagger issue plays, and how women respond to her candidacy.

Sen. Rod Grams, R-Minnesota, is facing a tough challenge

The results at that hour will also tell us whether the most vulnerable Republican senator running for re-election survives in Minnesota -- that's Rod Grams -- and whether Republican Lincoln Chafee gets to carry on the legacy of his late father, Sen. John Chafee, in Rhode Island.

We'll be looking for the results of an important referendum in Colorado that would require background checks for buyers at gun shows. It's an emotional issue in the state that experienced the Columbine tragedy.

Results from Iowa and a number of western states start coming in. Iowa is a battleground state that gets a lot of attention because of its first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses.

Montana has a tight Senate race, where incumbent Republican Sen. Conrad Burns is facing a tough challenge from Democrat Brian Schweitzer. The key issue in that race is prescription drugs, and we'll be looking to see if that issue pays off for Democrats.

The Big Enchilada comes in -- California, with 54 electoral votes. California is expected to go for Gore, but Bush showed the flag. Bush hopes to put Ronald Reagan's state back in the GOP column, where it was for almost 50 years before it became Clinton country.

California has six hotly-contested House races. By this time, we should begin to get an indication of whether either party has an edge in the race to control the House of Representatives. A solid Gore victory in California, with strong Gore coattails, could put the Democrats in power in the House and keep them there for the next decade.

California is also voting on an important school voucher initiative, which could make or break the voucher movement across the country.

And don't forget Oregon and Washington, two more West Coast battleground states where Nader voters will play a key role. West Coast Nader voters have the luxury of waiting to see how the vote is going in the rest of the country before they decide whether Al Gore really needs their vote.

Sen. Slate Gorton is fighting a challenge from Maria Cantwell

One more big Senate race is in Washington state, where incumbent Republican Slade Gorton is facing a self-financed, multi-millionaire challenger -- who happens to be a woman, Internet executive Maria Cantwell.

We'll be looking to see if the gender gap plays a decisive role in that race, and all over the country. If men are from Mars and women are from Venus, then Election 2000 could end up being the latest installment of Star Wars.

Only Alaska is left, with its three electoral votes. Kind of chilly up there in November, but not to worry: If this race is as close as it looks, at the midnight hour, we may still be counting ballots in Florida.

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