Nobody today associates Florida election laws with rationality, due process and deliberate speed, but actually, in the third week of November 2000, things were going as well as could be expected at the Miami-Dade County Canvassing Board.
On election night, Nov. 7, multiple news outlets had called Florida and its crucial 25 electoral votes for Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore. A few hours later, the networks retracted their call, moving the state into the “too close to call” column. Then they awarded it to Republican George W. Bush, only to retract that too. Gore phoned Bush to concede; he later retracted that concession as well. At night’s end, Bush led Gore by a meager 1,784 votes, instigating an automatic recount and setting the nation on a knife’s edge.
By Nov. 10, a statewide machine recount had narrowed Bush’s lead to just 327 votes, and the Gore campaign requested manual recounts in four counties, as allowed under state election law. For the next two weeks, canvassers endeavored to perform that task, peering through thousands of butterfly ballots, hanging chads, dimpled chads, fat chads — so many chads — under the gaze of national TV cameras. (Chads are the paper fragments created by holes in punch cards.) Lawsuits flew; injunctions were considered and rejected; deadlines were missed; and new, more arbitrary deadlines were set.
By Nov. 17, the outcome of the recount in Miami-Dade County, Florida’s most populous, loomed large in determining who would be the next president. Canvassers there had begun a manual recount of more than 650,000 ballots, but up against a court-ordered Nov. 26 deadline, they decided to focus on just the 10,750 ballots that had been unreadable to computer scanners.
And that’s when chaos struck. On Nov. 22, under the pretense of an organic uprising of concerned citizens, dozens of paid Republican operatives descended on the recount center, where they shouted and banged on windows, kicking and punching several officials in a violent stampede. The proximate target of their ire was Joe Geller, the chairman of the Miami-Dade County Democratic Party, whom they falsely accused of trying to steal ballots — who had, in fact, merely requested a single sample ballot to test the theory that a machine error was responsible for an undercount of Gore votes.
Feel familiar yet?
“This one guy was tripping me and pushing me and kicking me,” Geller later recalled to The Washington Post. “At one point, I thought if they knocked me over, I could have literally got stomped to death.”
Because the ersatz protesters wore button-up shirts and ties more befitting congressional staffers rather than, say, random people who happened to be on vacation in Florida, the incident became known as the Brooks Brothers Riot. And indeed, its participants include a who’s who of GOP operatives then and now. As Rachel Maddow memorably summarized, the “spontaneous” protest photo above included 10 GOP staffers, including aides to Reps. Tom Delay, Van Hilleary, Don Young and Jim Ross Lightfoot, and Sens. Fred Thompson and Jim DeMint. Then-Rep. John Sweeney set the whole thing off by urging a crowd to “shut it down.” Convicted felon and President Donald Trump’s longtime adviser Roger Stone claims to have been the riot’s architect, although his account is disputed by Bush consultant Brad Blakeman, who claims credit as well.
This mob’s actual target was not just Geller but the process in which he played just a small part: the constitutionally mandated and imminently feasible fair count of all votes cast by Miami-Dade citizens. By creating the perception of public unrest, the rioters made clear to county officials that a social cost would be extracted if they continued to perform these legal obligations.
The gambit worked. The Gore campaign, fixated on and trusting of the legal process, was caught flat-footed, and had not planned a comparable counter-mobilization. Mere hours after the riot, the board voted unanimously to suspend the count, citing, in part, the protests. “This was perceived as not being an open and fair process. That weighed heavy on our mind,” the supervisor of elections, David Leavy, told The New York Times.
On Nov. 26, Florida’s Republican Secretary of State Katherine Harris certified a result that put Bush ahead by 537 votes, with those Miami-Dade ballots left uncounted. On Dec. 12, the Supreme Court sided with Bush on partisan lines, and Gore conceded the next day. The sequence of events had enormous global consequences. For one: Within a few years, terrorists had attacked the United States, which responded by invading Iraq under false pretenses, leaving hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and thousands of Americans dead.
In a sense, Trump’s entire reelection campaign has been one long extended Brooks Brothers Riot ― a methodical, partisan attempt to baselessly sow distrust over the electoral process and foment large scale, violent social unrest. All summer long, he used his Twitter feed and media appearances to cast doubt on the legitimacy of mail-in voting, absent any evidence of significant voter fraud. He floated delaying the election, which is not within his power; refused to commit to accepting the election results; suggested he could remain in office beyond two terms; and, in late September, refused to commit to a peaceful transition of power should he lose. Asked to condemn white supremacists at the first presidential debate, Trump instead told the Proud Boys, a loosely organized far-right group, to “stand back and stand by.”
Now, as former Vice President Joe Biden appears poised to win the election if he prevails in Nevada, Georgia or Pennsylvania, this strategy is coming to fruition. On Wednesday, as the vote tally in Michigan showed an insurmountable lead for Biden, dozens of Trump supporters descended on vote counting centers in Detroit chanting, “Stop the count!” In Arizona, which both the Associated Press and Fox News called for Biden, Trump supporters rallied outside a Maricopa County election center shouting “Stop the steal!” and “Fox News sucks!” and demanding to be let inside. Republican Rep. Paul Gosar also joined the rally, saying, “We’re not going to let the election be stolen. Period.” No evidence of voter fraud has been found in either state, and the vote counts there have been continuously live-streamed for the public.
“STOP THE COUNT!” the president tweeted on Thursday morning.
On Facebook, a group called “STOP THE STEAL,” created on Wednesday, ballooned to more than 330,000 members overnight, and continued to grow by around 1,000 members every few minutes until Facebook shut it down mid-day on Thursday. (However, some affiliated pages still appeared to be live.) Its organizers are coordinating nationwide rallies to protest Democrats’ supposed theft of the election. The page is rife with far-right conspiracy theories and disinformation, and Mother Jones reported that the effort is connected to GOP consultants.
There are, of course, major differences between Florida 2000 and the 2020 election. Amply warned by Trump’s repeated and transparent attempts to incite his supporters and spread disinformation, Democrat-aligned groups and citizen watchers were quick to mobilize counter-protests calling for a complete and fair vote count. And with access to social media channels, GOP staffers no longer need to pretend to be citizens putting their bodies on the line. Huge numbers of Trump supporters will turn out, based on a firehose of conspiracy theories and unsupported claims that come from the president himself. There’s a real danger that these nationwide rallies will turn violent in a way that makes the original Brooks Brothers Riot seem like a polite scuffle.
This would put election officials in charge of counting votes in key states in a familiar bind — restore a semblance of order by caving to demands to stop the count, or follow the rule of law to its just conclusion. It does not look like, in 2020, they will be able to satisfy both demands at the same time.