Had Clinton been eligible to run for reelection in 2000, he would probably have won. But after the death of FDR, the Constitution had been amended to limit presidents to two terms in office. Democrats nominated Vice President Al Gore to succeed Clinton (pairing him with Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, the first Jewish vice-presidential nominee). Republicans chose George W. Bush, the governor of Texas and son of Clinton’s predecessor, as their candidate, with former secretary of defense Dick Cheney as his running mate.
The election proved to be one of the closest in the nation’s history. The outcome remained uncertain until a month after the ballots had been cast. Gore won the popular vote by a tiny margin—540,000 of 100 million cast, or one-half of 1 percent. Victory in the electoral college hinged on which candidate had carried Florida. There, amid widespread confusion at the polls and claims of irregularities in counting the ballots, Bush claimed a margin of a few hundred votes. In the days after the election, Democrats demanded a hand recount of the Florida ballots for which machines could not determine a voter’s intent. The Florida Supreme Court ordered the recount to proceed.
Just as Clinton’s impeachment recalled the trial of Andrew Johnson, the battle for the presidency in 2000 seemed to repeat the disputed election that ended Reconstruction (a contest in which Florida had also played a crucial role). As in 1877, it fell to Supreme Court justices to decide the outcome. On December 12, 2000, by a 5-4 vote, the Court ordered a halt to the recounting of Florida ballots, allowing the state’s governor Jeb Bush (George W. Bush’s brother) to certify that the Republican candidate had carried the state and had therefore won the presidency.
A member of a Florida election board trying to determine a voter’s intent during the recount of presidential ballots in November 2000. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually ordered the recount halted.
The decision in Bush v. Gore was one of the oddest in Supreme Court history. In the late 1990s, the Court had reasserted the powers of the states within the federal system, reinforcing their immunity from lawsuits by individuals who claimed to be victims of discrimination and denying the power of Congress to force states to carry out federal policies. Now, however, it overturned a decision of the Florida Supreme Court interpreting the state’s election laws. Many observers did not expect the justices to consider the matter at all, since it did not seem to raise a federal constitutional question. They justified their decision by insisting that the “equal protection” clause of the Fourteenth Amendment required that all ballots within a state be counted in accordance with a single standard, something impossible given the wide variety of machines and paper ballots used in Florida. Perhaps recognizing that this new constitutional principle threatened to throw into question results throughout the country—since many states had voting systems as complex as Florida’s— the Court added that it applied only in this single case.