When Donald Trump refused during Wednesday’s presidential debate to say he’d accept the results of the Nov. 8 election should he lose, his supporters had a heady retort to the predictable firestorm set off by his comments.
“Ask Floridians if Democrats have ever contested an election,” tweeted Helen Aguirre Ferré, director of Hispanic communications for the Republican National Committee.
How could we forget?
In 2000, the Sunshine State became the center of the free world when Vice President Al Gore beat George W. Bush in the popular vote — but appeared to lose Florida and the Electoral College by a margin so thin that it triggered a statewide recount and threw the United States into an unprecedented state of suspense. It took 36 days, multiple lawsuits and a U.S. Supreme Court ruling to resolve the election and get the country back on track under a new president Bush.
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Ask Floridians if Democrats have ever contested an election
Helen Aguirre Ferré, Republican National Committee spokeswoman
But though some conservatives have been quick to compare Trump’s comments with Gore’s actions, there is a huge difference between what happened in Florida 16 years ago, and what Trump said Wednesday night.
“I don’t think there’s any comparison at all,” said Barry Richard, an attorney who represented Bush before the Florida Supreme Court on the recount case.
One of the first distinctions made by Richard and others involved on both sides of the struggle to determine the outcome of the state’s chaotic 2000 election is that Gore didn’t have anything to do with the initial turn of events that led to the recount effort that delayed naming a winner in Florida.
The statewide machine recount of nearly 6 million ballots was automatically triggered under Florida law when Bush emerged less than 2,000 votes — or less than one half of 1 percent of the statewide vote — ahead of Gore after the initial count. Then, some specific county canvassing boards ordered manual recounts. And when a lawsuit was finally filed by one of the candidates, it was submitted by Bush, who sought to certify his slim lead.
I don’t think there’s any comparison at all
Bush recount attorney
“I’m not sure this is Republicans’ best argument,” deputy White House press secretary Eric Schultz told reporters aboard Air Force One Thursday. “In fact, it seems to argue to the contrary.”
Gore’s campaign didn’t file its first legal challenge until a week after the general election, when the state’s then-secretary of state, Katherine Harris, ordered county canvassing boards to end their ballot counting in order to allow the state to certify its election results. Gore contested the results of the election after Harris, who supported Bush’s campaign, named a winner on Nov. 26.
Gore — who ultimately conceded after a split U.S. Supreme Court ordered a halt to frantic ballot-counting in early December — alleged in his suit that South Florida vote counters had engaged in misconduct, citing specifics.
And there-in lies another key distinction between Trump and Gore.
The criteria can’t be ‘I don't like the results’
Steve Zack, Gore recount attorney
“The fundamental difference is that there has been no criteria set by Mr. Trump as to what he would consider as a problem that he would be concerned about,” said Stephen Zack, an attorney who represented the Gore campaign. “We know the criteria that exists under the statute. But the criteria can’t be ‘I don't like the results.’”
Zack said it’s also important to note that Gore ordered his attorneys and campaign to never disparage the courts or the nation’s democratic process. Richard, the Bush campaign attorney, noted that Gore’s concession was also important in the context of Trump’s disparaging of the election and his threats to jail Clinton.
“When the process was over and the U.S. Supreme Court had decided what they decided, [Gore] accepted the results,” said Richard, a Democrat. “There was never ever an issue that either candidate would accept the results when it was over. That was understood from the beginning. Gore actually conceded the night of the vote” before retracting his concession when the results narrowed.
Al Cárdenas, the Florida Republican Party chairman in 2000, said he still hears occasional sniping from Democrats that Bush “stole” the 2000 election, which he called hypocritical. But he said it’s one thing for a volunteer or consultant to make allegations, and another for the candidate to claim fraud.
“No one in America takes seriously what a campaign strategist or volunteer says about the peaceful transition of power. But a presidential candidate, a potential leader of the free world, whatever he or she says is important. It sets the tone,” he said. “Donald Trump is not the first and only person to claim foul in an election. But he has two problems: he’s claiming foul before an election has been held, and he’s a presidential candidate.”