As the 2016 presidential election draws nearer and the cycle continues to electrify with surprises, I am reminded of the influence of past elections.
Like a kaleidoscope that assaults our fields of vision with aggressive intensity, each election cycle brings with it defining images and phrases: “I Like Ike,” Bill Clinton playing the saxophone on Arsenio Hall, Mitt Romney and his “binders full of women.”
But the 2000 presidential election can be summed up in one phrase: There’s a problem with the numbers in Florida.
These are the most important words spoken in Jay Roach’s 2008 HBO film “Recount.” The movie, which premiered on television, dramatizes the events that transpired in the Sunshine State when Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore became locked in an eleventh-hour decision over who would be the rightful winner of the presidency in 2000.
State campaign officials were left to figure out who actually won Florida, which in turn would determine who won the presidency. The close margin of votes between the two candidates in Florida prompted an automatic recount of votes.
“Recount” opens with problems with the “butterfly ballot” in Palm Beach, Florida. Candidates were listed on both sides of the ballot with the punch card in the center. The confusion that elderly voters experienced is represented by a single woman who looks at her ballot, and then at the sign in the booth that says “time limit in voting booth is five minutes.” She finally punches a hole into her ballot, but the only problem is that she doesn’t know whom she has voted for.
This is the moment it all began. It was the moment when every lawyer in the country had to learn about chad (small pieces of paper punched from the ballot when the voter chooses a candidate) and whether hanging chad (punched but still partially attached) and dimple chad (punched but all corners still attached) had to be counted. It was the moment Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris (Laura Dern) became a national name.
Harris can only be described as a whack-job, and Laura Dern is a master at playing a whack-job. She’s been thrust into one of the most important positions in the world, and she abused it for the sake of herself. Everyone on both sides of the election can see it. Because it’s so clear that she’s trying to push the recount into Bush’s favor, leaders of the Bush campaign become afraid that Americans would think they’re influencing her (which they’re not).
During election years, the animalism of people comes out, and 2000 is no exception. Death threats are sent to members of canvassing boards during the proceedings. A protest in Miami-Dade County almost erupts into violence as a group of Bush supporters nearly attack a Gore lawyer. The canvassing board feels so threatened they decide to end recounting proceedings.
As history has shown, Florida eventually goes to Bush. The truth is that the Gore campaign stood no chance against the complex apparatus of think tanks, law firms and state officials that supported Bush in Florida. It didn’t help that George W. Bush’s brother Jeb was governor, either.
At the end of “Recount,” a Gore aide approaches a Bush aide on a tarmac and asks him if the best man won. Whether the best man won the election or Florida will never be known, despite the images of Katherine Harris and hanging chads that defined that election cycle.
What images will define the 2016 election?
“Recount” is currently available for streaming on HBO Go, HBO Now and Amazon Prime.