In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court through its decision in Bush v. Gore ended the uncertainty surrounding which candidate had actually won the presidential election of that year. Because of the Supreme Court’s extremely complicated decision in this case, George W. Bush was declared the winner of the presidential election. The ruling also indicated that the U.S. Constitution and federal statutes can supersede state election laws and decisions of state supreme courts interpreting those state laws.
The 2000 presidential race was extremely close, with the candidate who carried Florida’s twenty-five electoral votes ultimately being able to gain the majority of the electors voting in the Electoral College. Florida awarded all of its electoral votes to the candidate who got the most votes for president in the state. The candidate who receives the majority of the Electoral College votes wins the presidential election, regardless of who wins the most popular votes nationwide. On election night in 2000, it became clear that the initial vote count in Florida made that state too close to call. After a few days, eventually the state’s Republican secretary of state certified the Republican candidate, George W. Bush, as the winner of that state and its electoral votes. Al Gore, the Democratic candidate, then sued in various Florida state courts for recounts to take place, but only in specific counties in Florida.
The tradition in Florida was that local election boards determined the standards for recounting ballots in their own counties. After a series of decisions by lower state courts, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the selective recounts should continue in the presidential race, without establishing any statewide standards for counting disputed ballots. To further complicate matters, Florida counties used a wide variety of types of ballots in that election, including the so-called butterfly ballot and paper punch ballots that often left so-called pregnant or hanging chads. These chads were the small pieces of paper that often remained attached to punch ballots if the voter was not careful to make sure that they had punched the ballot correctly.
Before the U.S. Supreme Court accepted the case, most legal commentators said that the Court would not hear the case because there were no federal issues in the dispute. They said this because, traditionally, state election laws had been left to state courts to interpret. However, the U.S. Supreme Court did accept the appeal from the Florida Supreme Court’s decision in this case, citing both federal statutory and federal constitutional issues. The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling, handed down on December 12, 2000, revealed that this was an extremely complex case with many federal legal questions. The ruling also revealed that the justices were split into four separate blocs on this decision. Justices John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg formed one bloc, Justices David Souter and Stephen Breyer formed a second group, Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony Kennedy formed a third bloc, and finally Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas formed a fourth group in this case.
The first legal question in this case was whether the Florida Supreme Court could overrule the decision of the Florida secretary of state, which had certified Bush to be the winner of the state, and thus allow the selective recounts to continue. The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling was 6–3 on this issue (with Justices Rehnquist, Scalia, and Thomas in dissent), stating that the Florida Supreme Court had acted properly when it ordered that the recounts should continue. The second legal question revolved around whether the lack of statewide standards for counting disputed ballots violated the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The Court ruled 7–2 (with Justices Stevens and Ginsburg in dissent) that the Florida Supreme Court was incorrect in not requiring statewide standards for counting the disputed ballots. The third legal question was whether a federal statute required that the recounts had to be completed by December 12, 2000, the day that the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision. By a vote of 5–4 (with Justices Stevens, Ginsburg, Souter, and Breyer dissenting), the Court ruled that the federal statute required that the recounts had to end by December 12. Since it was impossible for the recounts to continue, the Court ruled that the secretary of state’s decision that George W. Bush had won the most votes in the state would stand. Thus, the U.S. Supreme Court ended the confusion around who would win the majority of the Electoral College. For future elections, it became clear that the federal Constitution requires that states must use uniform statewide standards for recounting disputed ballots within their states.
SEE ALSO: Elections
E. J. Dionne and William Kristol, eds., Bush v Gore: The Court Cases and the Commentary (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 2001); Ronald Dworkin, ed., A Badly Flawed Election: Debating Bush v. Gore, the Supreme Court and American Democracy (New York: New Press, 2002); Howard Gillman, The Votes That Counted: How the Court Decided the 2000 Presidential Election (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001); and Cass R. Sunstein and Richard A. Epstein, eds., The Vote: Bush, Gore & the Supreme Court (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).