Across the United States, thousands of lawyers are getting ready to contest any irregularity that may arise in the November 2 presidential vote. While legal disputes are far from new in U.S. elections, the current mobilization of lawyers on behalf of candidates, political parties and interest groups is occurring on a scale never seen before. The preoccupation with potential election problems stems from America's experience four years ago, when the nation endured a five-week legal battle over voting in Florida.
Election night November 7, 2000 - as results began to pour in, major U.S. television networks first projected then-Vice Al President Gore narrowly winning Florida. Hours later, they put Florida in then-Texas Governor George W. Bush's win column. Shortly thereafter, the networks retracted their projections, saying the race was too close to call.
Vice President Gore, who had prepared a concession speech, sent campaign manager Bill Daley to address supporters instead. "Until the recount is concluded and the results in Florida become official, our campaign continues," he said.
The deadlock left the nation stunned. The initial count in Florida gave Mr. Bush a lead of less than 2,000 votes out of nearly six-million cast. Neither of the two candidates could win the election without a win in Florida. Mr. Bush's razor-thin lead was confirmed by an automatic machine recount. The outcome launched one of the most closely-watched legal proceedings in America's history.
Mr. Gore called for a manual recount of ballots cast in four heavily-Democratic Florida counties. "Time is important. It is even more important that every vote is counted, and counted accurately," he said.
The Bush team said a selective manual recount was unfair. Campaign spokesperson Karen Hughes. "It is becoming increasingly clear that Vice President Gore's campaign wants to keep counting votes until they like the results," she said.
Florida's punch-card ballot system was coming under heavy scrutiny amid allegations that tiny bits of paper known as "chads" sometimes failed to detach from the ballots when punched - meaning votes were not recorded.
In addition, voters in Palm Beach County complained of a confusing ballot lay-out that may have led hundreds of Gore supporters to accidentally vote for Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan.
A lower court rejected the Gore team's initial effort to force the state to extend a November 14 deadline for vote tabulation. But Florida's Supreme Court reversed the decision, and ordered state officials to accept tallies from manual recounts through November 26. Even so, only two of the four counties sought by Mr. Gore met the extended deadline. Palm Beach County completed the recount two hours too late.
Shortly after the deadline passed, Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, a Republican, certified the vote. Mr. Bush edged Mr. Gore by 537 votes. "I hereby declare Governor George W. Bush the winner of Florida's 25-electoral votes for President of the United States," she said.
Undaunted, the Gore team began challenging the election results, seeking a manual recount of disputed ballots in several counties. After a lower court setback, on December 8, more than a month after the election, Florida's Supreme Court ordered manual tabulations to proceed once again.
The effort was short lived. A day later, in Washington, the U.S. Supreme Court halted manual recounts pending a hastily-scheduled hearing. America could only wait. Mr. Gore's running mate, Senator Joe Lieberman. "What is at issue here is nothing less than every American's simple, sacred right to vote," he said.
But Mr. Bush's attorney, Ted Olson, successfully argued before the U.S. Supreme Court that Florida's Supreme Court had disregarded state law in ordering further recounts. "What we have said is that the Supreme Court of Florida took it [the vote tabulation process] out of the legislative scheme and that the result was this process of manual recounts, changing of deadlines and things of that nature," he said.
Vice President Gore had run out of time and legal options. Florida's 25 electoral votes, and the presidency, went to George W. Bush, who took the oath of office in January, 2001.
This year, Florida Governor Jeb Bush, the president's younger brother, is promising a better tabulation of the presidential vote in his state. "We have done everything we can to make sure that people have access to voter registration, and that we have made it easy for people to vote," he says.
How will Florida's balloting proceed this year? Stay tuned November 2.