CNN Chief Political Analyst Gloria Borger revisits the 2000 election in a CNN Special Report, “Bush v. Gore: The Endless Election,” Monday at 9 p.m. ET.
Roughly a week and a half into the Florida recount, the issue of counting overseas absentee ballots came front and center, and ended up giving Team Bush a major victory in the court of public opinion.
On Wednesday, November 15, 2000, Al Gore lawyer Mark Herron sent a memo to Democratic recount observers telling them how to challenge late-arriving overseas absentee ballots that did not have a valid postmark on them.
This would have potentially thrown out the votes of hundreds of military members stationed overseas. In a race separated by about 300 votes at the time, these votes could have been decisive in choosing the next president.
By Friday morning, Republican staffers got a hold of the “Herron memo” and quickly passed it up the ranks to George W. Bush’s recount chief, former Secretary of State James Baker.
“We thought this is manna from heaven,” Baker recalled to CNN. “How in the world can you put out a memo that the only reading of which is to suppress the votes of our military men and women?”
Baker wasted no time in seizing on the issue.
“We jumped on that with both feet as we should have,” Baker explained. “Here we have our – these brave young men and women serving us overseas. And the postmark on their ballot is one day late. And you’re going to deny him the right to vote? It was a very forceful argument.”
Democrats argued that they were simply following the laws.
“The idea that people were going to vote after the election and have those votes count, that’s a pretty irregular idea,” said Ron Klain, who served as the Gore campaign’s general counsel.
“The Republicans and the clerks in counties, they were actually sticking to the law,” Gore Florida Senior Adviser Nick Baldick added in a recent interview with CNN. “The clerks were elected Republicans. They were actually doing the tough thing and saying, ‘No, these can’t be counted. They’re being FedExed in three days after the election.’”
Regardless, Bush surrogates – including Gulf War hero Norman Schwarzkopf – went out in force over the weekend decrying the alleged suppression of military ballots.
The Democrats had to make a public counter argument, and chose to put vice presidential nominee Joe Lieberman on NBC’s “Meet the Press” to defend Gore’s side of the story.
Klain could not brief Lieberman on the issue until Saturday night, because Lieberman was observing the Sabbath. After briefing the vice presidential nominee on the Gore position, Klain thought Lieberman “seemed to agree with that and seemed to be prepared to defend that.”
But when moderator Tim Russert pressed him on the issue Sunday morning, Lieberman publicly contradicted the Gore position.
“I would give the benefit of the doubt to ballots coming in from military personnel,” Lieberman said.
Gore loyalists watching at headquarters in Tallahassee exploded.
“I screamed some profanities,” Baldick recalled, upon watching Lieberman’s answer. “May have thrown some things. I was very upset.”
Gore himself chastised Lieberman after his “Meet the Press” appearance.
“I was over at the vice president’s residence for a meeting,” Lieberman remembered. “And Al said, ‘Before we get to the business, I just got to tell you, I was really disappointed, and a lot of others in the campaign were, about your answer on the military ballots.’”
To this day, Lieberman defends his public stance on the matter.
“It was not consistent, or right, for us to say, ‘Try to find a technical reason to not count an absentee ballot,’ and particularly not appropriate for us to say it when those ballots were coming in from Americans who were serving our country overseas,” he told CNN.
Democrats remain divided on the issue, even 15 years later.
“The next day we just kept losing because of (Lieberman’s) statements,” Baldick remembered. “Our folks out there arguing for keeping all ballots that showed up after Election Day non-postmarked – we lost in a lot of counties.”
A subsequent six-month-long New York Times investigation found 680 “questionable votes” out of the 2,490 overseas ballots that ended up being legally counted. The Times wrote, “Although it is not known for whom the flawed ballots were cast, four out of five were accepted in counties carried by Mr. Bush.”
According to the Times, Harvard voting pattern expert Dr. Gary King determined “that Mr. Bush’s margin would have been reduced to 245 votes,” if the 680 questionable ballots were thrown out. However, King “estimated that there was only a slight chance that discarding the questionable ballots would have made Mr. Gore the winner.”
Gore campaign chairman Bill Daley downplayed the significance of Lieberman’s comments. He told CNN, “in the end, you know, it was a political and a media hiccup that didn’t have a bottom line effect on who was President of the United States.”
“We didn’t lose the recount in Florida because they counted military ballots,” Lieberman went on to say. “I’ll believe to this day that I did the right thing.”