Director: Jay Roach.
Starring: Kevin Spacey (Ron Klain), Bob Balaban (Ben Ginsberg), Ed Begley Jr. (David Boies), Laura Dern (Katherine Harris), John Hurt (Warren Christopher), Denis Leary (Michael Whouley), Bruce McGill (Mac Stipanovich), Tom Wilkinson (James Baker), Bruce Altman (Mitchell Berger), Jayne Atkinson (Theresa LePore), Gary Basaraba (Clay Roberts), Derek Cecil (Jeremy Bash), Eve Gordon (Monica Klain), Marcia Jean Kurtz (Carol Roberts), Mitch Pileggi (Bill Daley).
Florida becomes a political battleground in 2000 when Ron Klain and Al Gore's campaign advisers push for a recount of the state's ballots.
Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire film.
Gore Campaign Headquarters, Nashville, Tennessee. Ron Klain fields telephone calls from various new organizations. The first of many serious voter irregularities start popping up. He tells Michael Whouley that in Palm Beach County many older voter think they accidentally voted for Pat Buchanan by mistake. Ron goes to Loews Hotel. Bill Daley, the Gore Campaign Chairman, says that Gore wants him to be in charge of reviewing candidates for positions below the cabinet level. Ron won't be taking that job, which had had done already eight years ago.
Bush Campaign Headquarters, Austin, Texas. Joe Allbaugh, Campaign Manager, is busy on the phone while Ben Ginsberg, Chief Counsel, tells the staff that by tomorrow "the stains of Bill Clinton will be washed away and honor and dignity will finally be restored to the White House."
In Palm Beach County there are already demonstrators outside calling for a revote. Judge Burton asks Theresa why she listed the candidates on both sides of the ballot? She answers that if she had tried to get them all on one side the print would have been so small that it would have been too hard for the seniors to read.
NBC, CBS and CNN call the election in Florida for Al Gore and then have to take it all back. Now they start calling Florida for Bush. Around 2 p.m. the networks says that Bush will be the 43rd President of the United States. Al Gore concedes to Bush in a telephone call. He prepares his concession speech.
Ron gets a call saying that Florida is too close to call. Whouley calls and says basically the same thing. He adds that a machine in Volusia added 3,000 votes to Bush's total and subtracted thousands of votes from Gore. Now the frantic calls go out to try to stop Gore from making a concession speech. They get through to Morehouse who gets to Gore just as he is about to make his speech. He says: ". . . there's a problem with the numbers in Florida."
Al Gore calls Bush back to retract his concession. Ron heads off to Florida.
At 3:52 a.m. Katherine Harris, Florida Secretary of State, gets a phone call from Governor Jeb Bush, George W. Bush's baby brother. She has to rush to get to a meeting of the top people in Jeb's administration. The figures they have say that Bush takes Florida by 1,784 votes. The number is so low that it triggers an automatic recount.
The Gore campaign gets Warren Christopher, former Secretary of State, to lead a Gore legal team. James Backer, former U.S. Secretary of State, says that this is going to be a legal nightmare with lawyers all over the place. Pat Buchanan says that he thinks some of the Florida voters voted for him when they really wanted to vote for someone else. Jesse Jackson, civil rights leaders, leads a march of unhappy voters through West Palm Beach. Ron Klain shakes his head and says: "It's insane." The certification of the election is six days away.
James Baker arrives in Florida with Margaret Tutwiler, his deputy. He immediately starts to work. He orders that they get their protestors in place to counteract the Gore protestors. He tells the team there that this is a "street fight" for the presidency of the United States. The Gore people are running into problems. There is not one major law firm in Florida that will take Gore on because Jeb Bush warned them through his chief counsel that there will be negative consequences if they take on Gore as a client.
The butterfly ballot has caused a problem. It was designed by a Democrat and approved by the Democrats. Ron says they should file lawsuits, since Gore wants to handle the problem as a legal process and not a political street fight. But Warren Christopher says there will not be lawsuits against the President of the United States. Baker tells his people that the judges on the Florida Supreme Court are a bunch of flaming liberals, so they want to avoid them. He wants to try for the US Supreme Court.
The Gore people suggest a hand recount in all the Florida counties. But Bill Daley says they would have to go to each of the 67 separate counties and ask for such a recount. Ron says they should ask for recounts in Palm Beach and Volusia counties. He pleads with Warren to start throwing punches. But Warren takes an idealistic approach to the situation. Whouley says the man is so tight that he probably eats his M&M candies with a knife and fork.
The machines says there are 175,000 non-voters in Florida. Whouley says that's 175,000 uncounted ballots. The problem is old-fashioned punchcard ballots. He says the cardboard chad gets punched but many times they don't go all the way through the holes. So there are these little pieces of paper, chad, hanging off the ballot. (The plural of chad is chad.) When the ballots are retabulated, the hanging chad get pushed back into the holes on the ballot and the machines read it as if the holes were never actually punched. Other chad are just dimpled for different reasons (such as the chad building up in the machine thereby preventing the chad from being pushed out). Whouley pleads with Ron to get Warren to accept the idea of the hand count.
In face to face negotiations, Baker walks all over Christopher, saying there will be no negotiations, compromises or extensions. Meeting over. Ron works on Christopher to get him to fight. Christopher gives him platitudes like: "There's no shame in placing country over party." Ron tells him politely that they may have won this Florida election and it's there duty to find out the truth. The recount results are in. The gap between the two candidates is only 327 votes in favor of Bush. Now Ron really pushes for hand recounts in four counties. He is adding Broward and Miami-Dade. Ron also says they have to start putting pressure on Katherine Harris to extend the certification deadline.
Katherine learns that 18 of the 67 counties failed to do the recount. She is not too concerned about that. She is busy thinking about all the eyes of the nation and the world being on her. In a press conference she says there will be no contact between her and her office with either campaign. But Baker has a different idea. They call on the help of Mac Stipanovich, Republican Lobbyist. Among the things he tells Katherine is: "You need to bring this election in for a landing with George W. Bush in the cockpit."
Clay Roberts working for Katherine Harris tells Kerey Carpenter, Attorney Florid Department of State, to go down to Palm Beach County and offer the canvassing board some guidance on the election statutes, especially if she can get them to request an advisory opinion. Kerey goes down to speak with Judge Burton. She tells him: "The division's position is that dimpled chads (sic) should not be counted." She adds that the state can offer a lot of help to them if they ask for an advisory opinion. He asks and Clay responds: "A 'vote tabulation error' is an error in which the vote tabulation system fails. Since no such error has occurred, county canvassing boards are not authorized to hand-recount their ballots."
The Democrats counter by getting their own "damn" advisory opinion. So they get Bob Butterworth, Florida Attorney General and Chairman of Gore's Florida Campaign, to issue an advisory opinion. In Palm Beach the conclusion from a 1% recount of the votes is that the butterfly ballot cost Gore at minimum of 6,000 votes. The Bush man says the Secretary of State told the country election officials that they can't hold a recount and it would be illegal for them to disobey her advisory opinion. The board votes to suspend the recount until they get better clarification of what they are supposed to do.
Ron tells Christopher that the other side's argument is so much "bullshit" and they have to go to court against Katherine Harris right now. Christopher says he has some bad news. His daughter is sick and he is returning to California. So there now will be no senior member of Gore's election campaign in the entire state of Florida.
Lawyer Jeff Robinson joins Ron's team. He says the black neighborhoods and other minority neighborhoods get stuck with the worst machines, the punchcard machine with error rates twice that of opti-scan. Volusia has ignored Katherine's advisory and has almost completed their recount. That county plans to sue Katherine Harris to accept their late returns and the Gore team is going to join that lawsuit.
Baker calls Klain to gloat over the Republicans winning tomorrow. Ron and Whouley figure they are going to lose too. They also figure on getting the best appellate lawyer in the country: David Boies. Boies gets in gear and tells the press that Ms. Harris is being unfair in selecting which late votes she will accept. If she wants to reject votes, then she must come up with a good reason. So the Republican lobbyist tells Katherine just to come up with a reason. So she comes up with the idea of asking the counties to write her and tell her why their late votes should be counted. At the press conference, on advice of her counsel, she refuses to answer any questions.
And now Katherine gets a lot of heat from the people and the media, especially the TV show "Saturday Night Live". This upsets Katherine. One demonstration placard says: "Katherine the Terrible".
November 15. Katherine holds a press conference and announces that she is denying the counties' requests to include ballots counted after the deadline. Again, she answers no questions. The Florida Supreme Court issues a stay to stop the certification of the vote. And Al Gore didn't even ask for a stay. Baker calls for more Republican rallies and protests to put pressure on the Democrats. They gather around the Florida Supreme Court building. The lawyers from the two sides battle it out before the Florida Supreme Court.
November 21. The Florida Supreme Court sides with the Gore team. So the recounts go on. The Republicans decide to try to delay and hinder the recount by being unnecessarily argumentative over the interpretations of the individual cases before them. They want to delay long enough so the Democrats can't finish the recount in the five days. The Democrats accuse the Republicans of intentionally trying to slow down the recount. Palm Beach decides not to count dimpled chads (sic). Some of the canvassing board members start getting death threats and some of them have to have police escorts.
Constitutional Attorney Ted Olson joins the Republican team. He says the unequal application of standards in the counties will allow them to argue that the recount violated the Equal Protection clause. Baker says he kind of likes it. They plan to go to the US Supreme Court with it (even though the Equal Protection clause was designed to protect real minorities against unequal treatment by the whites). They cynically laugh that Judges Rehnquist and Scalia may just find their "inner liberal" yet.
Gore gets in hot water when his team tries to wanting to throw out many military votes from abroad for irregularities, as the Republicans did concerning votes coming from Israel. Senator Lieberman of Connecticut, the Democratic vice-presidential candidate, sides with the Republicans. Now the Republicans, emboldened by Lieberman, start to ask for recounts of military votes in various towns in Florida. The Republicans have a field day with this one, as they wrap themselves in the American flag and shout patriotism for our boys in uniform. So Bush picks up a lot of votes as the election boards do their best for our boys (and girls).
November 22, four days to go. The Democrats learn that the official state purge list for convicted felons has a lot of non-felons on it. People were unnecessarily turned away from the polls and didn't get a chance to vote. It comes from the office of Katherine Harris. She told the computer company: "Obviously, we want to capture more names that possibly aren't matches . . ." So the list contains names of felons and anyone whose name is similar to a felon on the list. In Leon County of the some 700 "felons" on the list, only 33 actually proved to be felons. They estimate that state-wide 20,000 people were denied the right to vote because of this computer decision and almost half of these people were, no surprise here, African-American.
The Cuban-Americans are outraged by the federal seizure of the boy Elian Gonzales and sending him back to Cuba. Now they are up in arms protesting the vote recount. The police let some of the protestors into the building and they cause a real problem. A woman accuses a lawyer for Gore of stealing the sample ballot he has in his hand. He tries to explain it but she just screams out that this guy stole a ballot. One guy tells the lawyer that the Colonel and he won't let him leave with that ballot. They rough him up a bit. The canvassing board feels threatened and wants to abandon the vote for the recount. Palm Beach wants more time. Katherine will not grant the additional time. Katherine is criticized for this. She then declares George W. Bush the winner of the Florida election.
But it's not over. The get a tough judge. He doesn't for the Republicans. Gore's lawyers will appeal the decision. Gore starts to waver and seems ready to throw in the towel. But Ron doesn't want that. This time the Florida Supreme Court splits the decision allowing some votes and not allowing other. But it sides mostly with Gore. They have three more days.
Baker wants a stay to stop the recount. The lawyers find that doubtful, but they have another chance to win. If the election isn't decided by December 12, the Florida legislature can decide the election and since the legislature is largely Republican, it will be a victory for Bush. The Bush team also asks the US Supreme Court for a stay. Ron says: "Congress resolves presidential disputes, not the US Supreme Court."
Meanwhile, the recount goes on. The US Supreme Court orders a stay. All recounting must stop immediately. They will hear the case on Monday. Al Gore wimps out by telling his team to make sure no one trashes the Supreme Court.
Now they wait for the US Supreme Court case to take place. The decision comes in and it goes for Bush. Gore summarized it by saying: "The Supreme Court shuts down the recount causing us to miss the deadline. Then they say that we can't start up again because me missed the deadline?" Yes. One sentence especially catches the attention of Gore's team: "The court has ruled that this decision is 'limited to the present circumstances'". Gore wants to call it quits, but Ron tells him he just cannot concede. The vice-president agrees to give Klain one more shot. He petitions the Florida Supreme Court to set election standards.
Gore calls Ron and tells him he is going to follow the advice that a man should end the war when he knows he can't win. Ron then tells his staff, who want to keep fighting, that it's time to stop.
At the airport Ron speaks with Secretary Baker and asks him if the best man won? Of course, he says yes. Klain says: "I do hope you're right, sir."
I guess the biggest thing that shocked me in the Florida election scandal was just how rather cavalier the election boards were in denying thousand of voters the right to vote, their great willingness to throw out thousands of votes if there was a hint of irregularity that only effected a few of the voters and the absolute anarchy of the way elections are carried out and judged varying from one little government unit to the next throughout the USA. The politicians always hold the vote sacrosanct in their speeches, but in reality the ways elections are carried out is rife with corruption, discrimination and fraud. These weaknesses inherent in our electoral system would not have come so prominently into the light if the election had not been such a squeaker.
I was mad at Gore at the time, because I wanted him to at least tell off the US Supreme Court for butting into this election mess when the institution doesn't have the right to do so. Secretary Baker near the end of the movie gives a typical superficial glossing over the severe legal problems of the United States. He believed the rule of law won. I couldn't have disagreed more. Rather the Florida mess just revealed how bad the system of laws is in the USA. It was a political street fight. And it was a ridiculous sight to see adults having to deal over things like hanging chad.
Secretary Baker said the best man won. That was the funniest part of the film. George W. Bush has to be considered the worst president ever in the history of the country.
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
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