On the grounds outside the Gadsden County Courthouse, not far from the monument honoring Confederate soldiers, is a sign that recalls how the Florida Panhandle county has “provided Governors, Supreme Court Justices and numerous other high state officials.” Erected years ago, the marker fails to note the region’s most recent contribution to American political lore: Gadsden County can justifiably claim to have played a critical role in determining the result of the 2000 presidential election. The feat was not accomplished by counting ballots marked by an unprecedented outpouring of voters but rather by discarding 1,951 votes–12 percent of all those cast in this majority African-American and overwhelmingly Democratic county. A ballot design so flawed that it made Palm Beach County’s butterfly ballot look like a model of precision led to the disfranchisement in Gadsden County of almost four times the number of votes that Al Gore needed to beat George W. Bush in Florida and win the presidency.
That pile of discarded ballots formed a heartbreaking footnote to the great lost political story of Florida in 2000: A record turnout of new voters, many of them African-Americans from Miami’s Liberty City to rural counties on the Panhandle, radically altered the political landscape in a state that was supposed to be securely Republican. News organizations that could not see beyond dimpled chads, and a Gore legal team that failed to recognize where and how most Democratic votes were lost, generally missed that story. But it is well remembered by folks in Democratic strongholds like Gadsden County–where an upsurge in African-American electoral activism has begun to upset what the Miami Herald referred to as a white-run, “virtual apartheid” political system that prevailed into the 1990s. Their determination to turn voters out–and to get their votes counted this time–could decide the outcome of this year’s highest-profile gubernatorial contest: First Brother Jeb Bush’s run for a second term against Democratic challenger Bill McBride. “In 2000, a lot of people voted for the first time, and their votes were thrown out, not just here in Gadsden County but all over Florida,” says Gadsden County teacher Brenda Holt, a McBride supporter who traces her activism to 2000. “Maybe some people thought the problems would make people give up on voting, but I don’t think so. I think we’re coming back again, and this time, all of our votes are going to count.”
If, on November 5, Holt’s predictions come true, it will be a proper conclusion to one of the most remarkable stories of the 2000 campaign. In the fall of that year, a loose coalition of African-American voters, trade unionists, college-town liberals, working women and seniors upset the Bush family’s Florida franchise to make a safely Republican state suddenly competitive. Grassroots organizing and get-out-the-vote efforts pushed the turnout up from just 49 percent in 1998, the year in which Jeb Bush was elected, to 70 percent in 2000. A disproportionate number of the new voters were members of minority groups angered by Jeb Bush’s attack on affirmative action: African-American voter registration jumped 9 percent in the months prior to the 2000 election, compared with a 1 percent increase in white voter registration. On November 7, 2000, this coalition-without-a-name brought to the polls enough Democratic voters to secure the state for Gore. But getting enough voters to the polls did not guarantee victory. Confusing ballot designs like the one that disqualified Gadsden County voters and tens of thousands of others across the state, election rules dating to segregation days, antiquated equipment, open intimidation, the heavy hands of Jeb Bush’s political and legal teams, and, when all else failed, the intervention of the US Supreme Court denied enough Gore ballots to give the state’s twenty-five electoral college votes to George W. Bush.