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Bush v. Palm Beach County Canvassing Board: Summary & Significance

Instructor: Dr. Douglas Hawks

Douglas has two master's degrees (MPA & MBA) and a PhD in Higher Education Administration.

The presidential election of 2000 was, in many ways, a first for U.S. politics. In this lesson, we'll discuss just one of the cases that was part of the infamous road to victory: Bush v. Palm Beach County Canvassing Board.

The 2000 Presidential Election: Events Leading to the Case

After the national election day in 2000, it became very clear that the presidential race came down to Florida. Whoever won the popular vote in Florida would win the electoral votes and, with that, the presidency. Republican candidate Georgia W. Bush had the slightest of leads according to the tally, and Florida's Secretary of State Katherine Harris declared that she would certify those results by Nov. 14--the date that the Florida Constitution said the state's electoral votes should be assigned. She did just that and announced her results, declaring Bush the winner.

Democratic candidate Al Gore challenged Harris' decision in the Florida Supreme Court, also challenging the fact that Harris said she wouldn't wait for manual recounts occurring in four counties. He claimed that requiring the decision to be made by Nov. 14 was unconstitutional, since the U.S. Constitution states that electors didn't have to meet to cast their votes until the Monday after the second Wednesday in December--in 2000, that date was Dec. 18. The Florida Supreme Court agreed with Gore, demanding that Harris put off her election certification until Nov. 26 and include the manual recounts in her decision.

In response, Bush appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court in the case Bush v. Palm Beach Canvassing Board, which would become central in a slew of cases trying to determine who won the presidency.

Bush v. Palm Beach Canvassing Board

While the Florida Supreme Court found in Gore's favor, Bush's team quickly appealed to the circuit court and then the U.S. Supreme Court. The case of Bush v. Palm Beach Canvassing Board was argued on Dec. 1, 2000, and decided on Dec. 4. For this case, the U.S. Supreme Court had to answer two questions. First, there was the issue of post-election limitations on the ability to certify elections and whether that violated the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment and U.S. election law. Second, there was a question of whether the decision by the Florida Supreme Court actually changed the way electoral votes were allocated, which would be a violation of the Constitution.

Bush's lawyers argued that Harris had the authority to declare a winner on Nov. 14, a date set forth in the Florida Constitution. The Bush team also argued that the decision of the Florida Supreme Court was moot, because voting was over.

On the other hand, Gore's lawyers claimed that, in this case, the Nov. 14 date in the Florida Constitution conflicted with the U.S. Constitution, since there were still manual recounts taking place to ensure each individual's vote counted. The counties that were recounting tended to vote Democrat, so Gore's team wanted them to be able to recount all the votes manually.

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