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Ghost of 2000 Election Haunts Florida Watchers

The 2000 Florida presidential recount battle may seem a distant memory, but its ghost has a firm grip on the campaign of Democratic Sen. John Kerry (search), whose legal team is already in place to pre-check ballots and file the necessary injunctions in case of a reprise this November.

“We’ll pre-challenge if necessary,” Kerry told a crowd in Hollywood, Fla. last month. “We’re going to pre-check it, we’re going to have the legal team in place … we’re going to take injunctions where necessary ahead of time.”

Election observers say this is part of the unique legacy left by the raucous 2000 presidential election, in which Democratic Al Gore won the popular vote nationwide over George W. Bush (search), but Bush won the electoral votes 271 to 266, in large part due to a victory in the Sunshine State after a 36-day stand-off. The electoral college (search) determines who wins the presidency.

Other residual effects from the 2000 vote — like election reforms and conspiracy theories —add to the mixed bag of expectations in the upcoming race, say election analysts.

After the November 2000 election, charges of voter irregularities across several Florida counties prompted Gore to call for a recount there, sparking a media frenzy and national drama as counties simultaneously came up with various rules for conducting a ballot recount.

Among the irregularities, Democratic voters claimed they didn’t understand the ballot directions and might have voted for the wrong candidate. Others hadn’t punched their selection hard enough – thus the pregnant and hanging "chads" (search) and correspondent uncertainty over whether the partial holes should count as votes. Meanwhile, Republicans blasted Democratic-led counties for not tabulating thousands of military ballots from overseas.

The Florida vote was eventually brought to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled 5-4 on Dec. 12, 2000, that hand recounts violated the state constitution and should be stopped. With Bush just hundreds of votes in the lead, he was declared the winner.

Though a survey conducted by the Miami Herald/USA Today newspapers after all was said and done suggested that various counts showed that Bush did, in fact, win the state, a large number of Democrats continue to charge the election was “stolen” by the Bush legal team.

“Four years later, they are still crying foul,” said Sheri Annis, a Republican media strategist.

Annis said Kerry’s resurrection of the issue in Florida indicates that it still generates traction among the base and might prove a useful tool in whipping voters into a motivated frenzy, especially if Democrats are devising ways to get voters to the polls this fall.

“To me, it sounds as though Sen. Kerry is attempting to throw red meat to a crowd that hasn’t yet gotten over the 2000 election,” she said.

Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said Kerry’s fiery response is no different than that of Republicans in the 1960s after accusations of widespread ballot-stuffing (search) and other voting irregularities by Democrats in urban precincts.

“The Republicans would set up teams [of poll watchers (search)] in a strategy primarily to let the other side know they were watching,” he said. “It was meant to put the other side on notice, and on a more elevated level, this is something of the same sort. In capital letters, ‘We will be watching.’”

Both Democrats and Republicans say that while the upcoming election is expected to be close, they see slim chance the Florida circus will repeat itself. Nevertheless, Kerry's legal preparation — just in case — isn't off-the-mark, say strategists.

“I think what 2000 taught us, most important, is to be ready, not only in Florida, but in every other state, said Democratic campaign consultant Tom King.

Spokesmen for the Bush-Cheney campaign declined comment for this story, but sources say little doubt exists that they are assembling their own legal teams.

Election-watchers say the legacy of 2000 also resulted in other changes that can be viewed as both positive and negative for future campaigns.

On one hand, serious election reforms were approved by Congress. No less than $670 million in federal funds have so far been sent to states out of some $2.5 billion promised under the Help America Vote Act (search).

The money has helped states revamp their voting booths, changing over to newer technology like optical scan or touch-screen machines.

In addition, a majority of states has pursued legislation, fine-tuned existing statutes and tightened up the voting process at local polling places.

“The good news is there are number of jurisdictions that have implemented substantial reforms,” said Peter Kirsanow, who sits on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (search).

“How good they work, we will see. But on the most part, I think they have had a salutatory effect on the process.”

But while reforms have been made and awareness is heightened, political conspiracies have also been born.

“Paranoia, particularly among people who are focused on politics, is fairly widespread,”  said John Samples, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.

The reliability of the new electronic voting machines has already been questioned, with some suggesting that votes can easily be lost or switched or programs changed. Allegations have even been made that the Bush administration is behind an elaborate scheme to control the machines’ software.

Samples said regardless who wins the election, both sides are going to be suspicious of the outcome.

“There is a larger problem in that the political system is such that whomever wins the presidency, while the parties won’t physically resist the person taking office, neither side is going to accept the legitimacy of the other side winning,”  Samples said. “If Kerry somehow wins this election, he will be resisted from day one.”

But with recent polling in key states like Florida, Michigan and Pennsylvania showing Bush and Kerry within striking distance of one another, the most positive outcome of 2000 is the strong message that one vote really does count, said Annis.

“Those who are more politically inclined will get out there and vote, rather than saying, ‘my vote doesn’t make a difference,” she predicted. “They will be much more aware of their own input and impact.”