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This Day in History: Election uncertainty in 2000

On this day in 2000, Americans woke up to something unusual: It was the day after Election Day, but they didn’t yet know the name of their probable President-elect. Would it be George W. Bush or Al Gore? More than a month of legal wrangling would follow.

But did you ever think about this? The uncertainty could have been avoided if roughly 8,000 people had stayed in their voting lines. They didn’t, though. They listened to the media, got discouraged, and went home.

Why did so many people fail to vote, when they’d intended to?

The media was covering election night as it does every year, with wall-to-wall coverage of the state-by-state outcomes. As early as 6:00 p.m. E.T., the networks began calling states for one candidate or another. Unfortunately, the networks made a critical mistake at 7:49 p.m. NBC called an important swing state, Florida, for Gore. Not to be left behind, other networks quickly jumped on board with the prediction.

The calls were made despite the fact that polls had not yet closed in the state’s western panhandle, which is in a different time zone.

The mistake had instant ramifications. The panhandle is a more Republican part of the state. Some voters were still standing in line, waiting to cast their ballots. When they heard the call for Gore, they got discouraged, left the lines and went home. Post-election analyses speculate that Bush lost anywhere from 8,000 to 37,000 votes in the Republican-leaning western panhandle of Florida due to the early call.

If even half of those voters had stayed in line, subsequent events in Florida would never have degenerated as they did. What do you bet that none of those voters had any idea that failing to vote could have such huge ramifications? How many of them later wished that they had stayed in the voting line, whatever the media might be telling them?

By 10:00 p.m., the mistake was already becoming obvious. The call for Gore was retracted, and the state was deemed too close to call. A few hours later, the networks declared Republican candidate George W. Bush the winner of Florida and, hence, the presidential election. By 4 a.m., they’d retracted that prediction, too.

Indeed, the final results of the entire presidential election remained in doubt days later. The national outcome hinged on Florida, with its 25 electoral votes. That state—and thus the nation—would deal with recounts and lawsuits for weeks before the state was finally called for Bush. The final certified results held that Bush had won the state by only 537 votes.

Bush’s win in Florida ultimately gave him the presidency, despite the fact that he finished more than 500,000 votes behind Gore in the nationwide popular vote tally.

Some commentators wonder if the national popular vote tally, too, could have been different. Did voters in western states get discouraged and go home, thinking that Gore had already won? The national popular vote tally has no legal significance, of course, but psychologically it did matter to some people.

One last interesting factoid about the 2000 election?

The election outcome would have been different if a blue state had voted like it was “supposed” to. Instead, Republican voters went to the polls and voted against long-held expectations. The once-blue state of West Virginia went red that year and has been a safe red state ever since.

In short? Every vote matters. There is no predetermined outcome. Cast an informed vote today! But VOTE.

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