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SAMUEL PROCTOR ORAL HISTORY PROGRAM at
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Tim Nickens begins by describing his background as the political editor at The St.
Petersburg Times. He mentions the reporting he did during the 2000 Presidential
campaigns and offers his impressions of the candidates (pages 1-2). He considers
Florida's reaction to Joe Lieberman (page 3). Nickens speaks about the media
coverage of the two campaigns (pages 4-5). He offers his opinion on why Al Gore lost
the election in Florida and the strength of George W. Bush's public relations offensive
during the first stages of the recount (pages 7-8). He mentions Katherine Harris and
offers his impression of her actions during the recount (pages 8-10), Nickens speaks
about Bob Butterworth's possible conflict of interest (page 10). He describes the
organization of the Republican and Democrat campaigns during the recount procedure
Nickens offers his opinion on the impact of various court cases related to the recount
(pages 11-12). He talks about counting of the overseas absentee ballots and how the
Bush campaign used this issue to their advantage (page 13). He offers his analysis of
the Bush and Gore legal strategies (page 14). Nickens mentions the over-votes
counted in Duval County and considers the accuracy of the recount completed by the
media consortium(pages 15-16). Nickens doubts the possibility of ever knowing the
precise vote count (page 17). He evaluates the decision of the Florida Supreme Court
and compares it to previous decisions (page 18). Nickens evaluates the performance of
Judge Sauls, David Boies, and Barry Richard (pages 19-20).
Nickens explains the state legislature's plan to certify the vote regardless of the
outcome of the recount (pages 21-22). He does not believe that Jeb Bush pressured
the government to act in any particular way (page 22). His reaction to the Supreme
Court decision is noted (Pages 23-24). Nickens talks about the election's impact on the
state of Florida (page 25). He evaluates the Elections Reform Act (page 26). Nickens
says his newspaper did not uncover any cases of fraud related to the election (page
28). He finally mentions how the recount affected him personally, and offers some final
anecdotes about the election, including the strengths and weaknesses of the media
coverage. (Pages 28-31).
Interviewee: Tim Nickens
Interviewer: Julian Pleasants
Date: May 21, 2002
P: This is Julian Pleasants and I'm in St. Petersburg, Florida, at The St. Pete Times
with Tim Nickens. It is May 21, 2002. Tim, talk a little bit about what your
assignment was during the campaign, and then during the thirty-six days of the
N: I was the political editor at The St. Petersburg Times, starting in 1998, so I
covered the presidential campaign basically as it started, in its very infancy, in
1999. [I] made trips to Texas to get familiar with Governor [George W.] Bush
[U.S. President, 2001-present; Texas governor, 1995-2001], and trips to New
Hampshire in the Fall of 1999 to get up-to-speed in the first primary state. Then
in 2000, I was on the road for much of that year, covering first the primaries and
then the general election. I went to both [of] the national conventions, and
covered Bush extensively between [the conventions] and November.
P: Did you have any contact with the Bush campaign after the election was over?
N: Only in Florida, because the way it turned out, I went on President Bush's last
campaign trip, which began about eight days before the election. I flew down to
Austin and got on the plane there and stuck with him as they went out west and
then kind of did a loop back through the Midwest and up east to Pennsylvania,
and then, if you recall, he came down to Florida that final weekend and left
Orlando the Monday before the election. I was on that eight-day trip, got off the
plane in Orlando that Sunday night before the election, then came back here
Monday. Initially, we talked about going down to Austin, [Texas] for election
night, but we decided that I should stay here because Florida was so important,
and it turned out that that was the smart thing to do.
P: When the campaign was coming to a close, did you have any sense about the
mood of the Bush campaign operatives, particularly Karl Rove [chief political
advisor, campaign advisor for President George W. Bush]?
N: I had the sense that they were quite nervous. [Al] Gore [unsuccessful Democratic
presidential candidate, 2000; U.S. Vice President, 1993-2001] had really picked
up the pace and closed the gap, and if you followed the pattern of the trip there at
the end, we went out West to California.
P: I wonder why he would go to California, he couldn't win that state.
N: It was almost like a nod to it as you went by, because [the Bush plane stopped in
California on the first day of that last trip, and he appeared on Jay Leno that
Monday night]. Then we quickly got back to the Midwest and spent considerable
time in Michigan and Pennsylvania. The conventional wisdom then was [that]
between Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Florida, you had to win at least [two out of
three], and of course [Bush] lost the other [two].
P: At the end of the campaign, did you think the election was going to be as close in
Florida as it turned out to be?
N: We had some predictions here that election day and talked about it, and I recall
somebody came around and they were taking down predictions for both Florida
and the nation. I actually said that I thought Gore was going to win Florida and
the country, and everybody looked at me like I was crazy. But I kind of thought
that we spent so much time in Florida right at the end, that the Bush camp was
acknowledging that it was much closer than they had ever anticipated, because
nobody dreamed they'd be in Florida at that point. Of course, Gore began
election day in Miami Beach at dawn, so I just sort of had a sense that it was
going to be really close and that Gore might just pull the thing out.
P: Bill Clinton [U.S. President, 1993-2001] was able to carry the state in 1996,
whereas in the past, almost uniformly in presidential elections, the state has gone
Republican. Do you think there was a shift back toward the Democratic Party? I
understand that the Republicans control the governor's office and the legislature.
N: I don't really think there's a shift toward the party, I think [Florida is] more
squarely in the middle than ever. It was funny being on that Bush campaign
plane, because you've got reporters from national papers and reporters from all
over the country parachuting into Florida and many of them, I think, had bought
into the assumption that Florida was a Republican state. Most of [the state's]
congressional delegation is Republican, [the] legislature is Republican, [the]
governor is Republican. It must be Republican. But really [Florida] is moderate
and I think toward the end, the issues broke [Gore's] way where he really scared
people about Social Security and what Bush was going to do about that, and
about the environment and what Bush was going to do about that. Those are all
core issues in Florida and people get nervous about those sorts of things.
P: Also, I noticed that the turnout in the black community was extremely high, and
that obviously was a big help to Gore.
N: The turnout was a huge help to him in those black communities. You know, Jeb
Bush [Florida governor, 1999-present] had made some inroads into the black
community in 1998 and had actually gotten] into double figures percentage-wise,
which was really remarkable for a Republican, and his brother couldn't come
anywhere near that.
P: How important was the choice of Joe Lieberman [U.S. Senator from Connecticut,
1989-present; unsuccessful Democratic vice-presidential candidate, 2000] in
N: It turned out that [it] was pretty important. The question we'll never know really is
whether Bob Graham [U.S. Senator from Florida, 1987-present; Florida governor,
1979-1987] could have made the difference or not [for Gore]. I was in South
Florida quite a bit with Lieberman and Gore, and Lieberman just turned out to be
such a boost, not just among the large Jewish population. His personality [was
appealing to all sorts of voters]. You have to remember [that few] people really
knew that much about Joe Lieberman then, and he could really work a room.
Where Gore would often come off as a bit pompous and arrogant sometimes,
Lieberman was so deadpan and self-effacing and just sort of happy to be here
that he really endeared himself to a lot of people.
P: Would there have been a negative response to him as an orthodox Jew in the
Panhandle, for example?
N: I looked for that quite a bit, because I initially thought that might be a big problem
for him north of South Florida. In all our reporting, of course, people aren't
naturally going to tell you that they are anti-Semitic, we didn't really pick up much
of that. They didn't spend a whole lot of time in the Panhandle, but they spent a
lot of time in this 1-4 corridor where people are much more right down the middle,
and I never really picked up any of that.
P: Of course, the Panhandle to a large degree is strongly Republican, particularly in
the military counties, so there wasn't any reason to ask whether anybody liked
N: Right, [but the Gore campaign could have made a late trip through the
Panhandle]. I think Bob Butterworth, the state Attorney General [1986-present],
in hindsight had talked about if they had just made one more pass through in
North Florida, they might have just gotten a few [more] votes, but that's all 20/20
P: As I recall, The St. Petersburg Times endorsed Gore. Did you have any input
into that and how did the paper go about making that decision?
N: No, I didn't have any input into that as political editor. It's kind of an odd thing,
I'm totally on the news side, wrote news stories. I also wrote columns, which
appeared in the "Perspective" section where the editorials were run, but I am not
on the editorial board.
P: Was the editorial board very clear about their choice in this election?
N: I think there was a bit of nose-holding there. The St. Petersburg Times has not
endorsed a Republican for president in modern times, and [the editorial board
wasn't] about to recommend George W. Bush. On the other hand, I don't think
there was a lot of love for Al Gore, either. They were frustrated with him often,
throughout the Clinton administration [and the campaign].
P: How would you assess the fairness of the media coverage of the campaign,
particularly the thirty-six days of the recount? Not just your paper's coverage, but
N: It's hard without going and examining paper by paper in general, I think there
were distortions on both sides, particularly throughout the campaign, because
what [we often] wound up with [was] caricatures of these two guys. Bush [was]
being [portrayed as] kind of an empty-headed guy with a smile and a frat[ernity]-
boy kind of attitude [who] didn't know anything. Gore [was] being [portrayed as]
so stiff and arrogant that he couldn't possibly relate to anybody. In any sort of
assumptions or caricatures like that, there are pieces of truth, but I think in both
cases, those sorts of things got so overblown, that the personas that were
generated by some of the media, particularly on television, didn't bear a lot of
relation to what I saw on the campaign trail.
P: The newspaper is supposed to give you perspective and a little bit of depth about
issues and how they voted and what they plan to do. Do you think that the
coverage in that context was biased? The issue is, for many people, that The St.
Pete Times is liberal, so they're going to trash Bush, and even if they're not
enthusiastic about Gore, they're going to prefer him to Bush. Maybe The
Orlando Sentinel was just the opposite. Did you see that any of the newspapers
were skewing their point of view?
N: I really didn't particularly, in Florida, with the papers I'm most familiar with. I think
you could go back through The St. Petersburg Times and The Miami Herald and
The Orlando Sentinel, which were really the three papers that had the most
coverage that was staff-written about the presidential campaign before the
recount. I think you could find both columns and news stories that were tough on
both guys, because you have to remember, in Florida Bush was raising money
hand-over-fist, constantly, with Jeb Bush. He got a lot of positive publicity in
Florida early on, just by how aggressive he was in raising money. It was Gore
[who] was getting hammered for the ineffectiveness of his campaign. He didn't
have enough money, he wasn't here enough, and who was he going to pick as a
running mate. Then when he didn't pick Graham, he didn't get a [big bump of
media attention after the political convention]. Actually, initially it was negative,
before Lieberman came on. I think in a lot of ways they both took some hits, in
the Florida press.
P: Did you attend any of the debates?
N: I attended two out of the three debates.
P: What was your reaction to those? A lot of historians have argued that this is
what really killed it for Gore, because he sort of presented three different
personalities in three different debates.
N: He didn't have a good debate season. That's interesting, because if you think
back to the political conventions and even in the primaries, when he kind of
looked ahead, the conventional wisdom was, well, Gore will kill [Bush] in a
debate because Bush just won't be able to hold his own. But so much of that, as
we've seen, even back to the [John F.] Kennedy [U.S. President, 1961-1963;
U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, 1953-1960]-[Richard] Nixon [U.S. President,
1969-1974; unsuccessful Republican nominee for President, 1960] debate, is
how you look on television and what the tone of your voice is and your demeanor
and how you're going to act. Bush did surprisingly well.
P: Of course, low expectations are a factor, as well.
N: Exactly. The Bush campaign fed those low expectations early on, if you
remember. If we can just stay up on the stage with him, we'll be lucky. As long
as I don't stumble, I just might be able to hang on. Then, of course, it turned out a
lot of his charisma and everything came through and he was well-prepared and
he did really well.
P: Gore was rolling his eyes and sighing and all of that during the debate.
Somehow, Gore doesn't always have a sense of how people perceive him, does
N: Did not have a sense of how that came off and actually, I think after watching the
tapes, that came off even worse on television than it did in person, because you
didn't pick that up as much when you're sitting there trying to bang out the notes
and keep track of your story. Some of that wasn't as obvious until you looked at
the tapes and how people saw it at home.
P: During the recount, where did you spend most of your time? I know that you
covered some of the trials, including the trial in front of Judge Sanders Sauls
[Leon County Circuit Court]. Were you in Tallahassee most of the time?
N: I wound up splitting my time because I was here for election night and my job on
election night was to write, instead of the main story, the column and how Florida
fit in and kind of assess the thing. Of course, I wound up writing that column
three different times depending on which way it was going. I walked out of here
about 6:00 a.m. the morning after the election and I had agreed to do a radio
interview with somebody about 8:00 or 9:00 in the morning. They called as I was
walking out of the parking lot about 6:00 a.m. and said, can we do it now? I said
sure, give me ten minutes to get home. I did that interview, went home, got three
hours of sleep and came back here. The way it worked out, there were so many
fronts of that story, especially early on, because you had the recounts in South
Florida and then they were spreading elsewhere. We had issues here in the
Tampa Bay area and issues in Jacksonville, and we had people [from both
campaigns] parachuting into Tallahassee. We decided it was best for me to stay
here and anchor the story and do some reporting from here and then try to distill
this stuff. I stayed here for about the first two weeks of the recount and then
when it was clear in Tallahassee that there was going to be a trial and contest of
the election, I flew up there and I stayed up there all but the last day or two.
P: Did you go to South Florida at all?
N: No, I didn't go to South Florida.
P: Let's look at the overall impact of this election, and of course historians always
want to know why Gore lost or Bush won. What is your analysis?
N: From doing our recount project with the consortium of the other newspapers and
spending months looking at that, I'm convinced that more people tried to vote for
Gore than Bush. [It is impossible to name one major reason why] their ballots
didn't count. [The reasons have] been analyzed, but I don't think there's any
question that the ballots people tried to cast, if they could have been counted and
the true intent of the voter [had] been known, Gore would have won.
P: Why didn't he win by a substantial margin? Some argue that Gore was in the
state a lot, the momentum was in his favor, and some people were even
predicting that he might win by two or three percentage points. Do you think
votes for Ralph Nader [Green Party Presidential Candidate, 2000; activist;
author, Unsafe at Any Speed] hurt him a lot?
N: The Nader vote is one factor that killed him. I think Nader got something like
90,000 votes in the state.
N: All he needed to peel off [was] 3,000 of those. Now, the Nader folks don't agree
with that, of course, but that's one factor. I think the other factor [was] the design
of the ballots and people got confused in some of those counties that had the
butterfly ballot and the multiple pages. When you try to isolate whether it was
Nader or the ballots or the absentee [ballots], it's hard to pin down one factor.
P: Is there a clear indication on your part that the butterfly ballot was illegal? Did
you have that sense?
N: I don't know that it was illegal, I think it's a really close call.
P: One of the things I've discovered in Palm Beach County is that 96 percent of the
people voted correctly. A high percentage, 4 percent, voted incorrectly, and that's
a lot of voters, but the great majority of people had no problem with that ballot.
We've talked to Theresa LePore [supervisor of elections, Palm Beach County]
and she certainly didn't intend for that to happen, she was trying to make it easier
for older people to read. How important was the fact that Gore spent so much
time on the protest and waited until he got into the contest, until literally it was
almost too late? I've talked to some of his lawyers, Dexter Douglass [attorney for
Al Gore in 2000 election], and he was insistent at the beginning that they move to
the contest right away and let the judges count.
N: In hindsight they had bad strategy. You can say that nobody understood exactly
how this process was going to work because [they] hadn't been through it before.
There are very few experts in this sort of thing how [to] protest and then contest
an election, particularly a statewide election, where it hadn't really been done
before. In hindsight, they clearly had bad strategy because you had sort of a set
time. You weren't going to win on the front end of the protest, it would've been
best to get to the contest right away. The other thing that they didn't [do] until, I
think, too late is they should've [gone] for a statewide recount right away. By
focusing [initially on just four counties], they looked like they were just trying to
slant it in the public's eyes to their benefit and create the same sort of distortion
that you were trying to correct. I think [ Gore should] have come out the day after
election right off the bat and said, you need a statewide recount to verify this.
P: Although he did propose, at one point, to Bush to stop all the lawsuits, and of
course Bush turned that down.
N: That was a little late.
P: The issue also was that, in the public's eye, Gore was talking about counting all
the votes, but clearly did not want to count any votes in Bush counties. Plus he
ended up challenging the military ballots.
P: In your view, who won the public relations battle and was that significant?
N: I think Bush won the public relations battle, overall. When Gore was insisting on
counting all the votes, he was making some progress, but then the Bush camp
countered that pretty well. Then, of course, they had the debacle over the
overseas absentee ballots. Once Bush seized on that and they trotted out
Governor [Mark] Racicot [Montana governor, 1993-2001] to blast away and
Lieberman made that terrible mistake on the morning talk shows that Sunday and
basically caved, that killed [Gore].
P: As a matter of fact, I talked to Mark Herron [Florida attorney, who sent memo to
Democratic election canvassers instructing them on how to disqualify overseas
ballots] last week and Mark Herron said he was watching it on television and his
mouth just dropped open. He said, oh, no. Privately, Lieberman had been
supporting their position and the memo Herron sent out, and once he said that on
television and Butterworth caved in as well, all of a sudden they saw that, at least
from his perspective, as a major blow to them. Not only were they not going to
get these votes, but they had suffered in terms of the public view of the election
being dragged out.
N: One of the unfortunate things in this, I think, was the way Mark Herron got
portrayed. [As] a reporter, I spent [nine] years in Tallahassee covering the
Capitol. Reporters in the state capitol bureau[s] who know Mark Herron know
that [he] is not somebody that is going to try to deny somebody their lawful ballot,
but in the national media he immediately [became] this sort of dark sinister figure
that had no bearing to reality at all.
P: His memo, which was merely spelling out the law, was a five-page memo. The
Republicans had a fifty-two page booklet instructing their lawyers very specifically
on how to get some of these military votes recounted, but that never came up in
the press. Katherine Harris [Florida Secretary of State, 1998-present; Florida
state senator, 1994-1998], in the national press, was Cruella De Vil [villain from
Walt Disney's 101 Dalmations]. All that seemed grossly unfair. There were other
reasons that perhaps you could have criticized her, but who cares about her
N: Once they got off into the makeup and the hairstyle and all that sort of stuff. In
some ways she was her own worst enemy too, because she clearly was
unprepared for the onslaught of international attention. In fact, I don't think there
were that many reporters that knew her well, because you don't spend much time
with the Secretary of State. They don't do that much. You don't spend time
cultivating sources at the Secretary of State's office. When she got into this, she
immediately became embattled. She had probably one of the best political minds
in Florida, Mac Stipanovich [Republican operative; chief of staff for Governor Bob
Martinez], helping her, but she probably would have been a little better off to not
go into the bunker and to explain a little bit more clearly exactly what she was
doing. She looked too much like a puppet in some of those news conferences.
P: Of course, Lucy Morgan [reporter, St. Petersburg Times] argued that she couldn't
present herself to the public because she didn't know what she was talking
about. She had not focused in her job on elections, that had been taken over by
Clay Roberts [director, Florida Division of Elections] pretty much and so she was
not "qualified." Probably, according to my sources, Mac Stipanovich told her,
we're better off staying out of the limelight, making these decisions, bringing this
election to a close.
N: Then she should have sent a surrogate out, because she didn't have anybody. It
was total silence and the only people that were really talking were [in] the Bush
camp. That made it seem [that] she must just be their mouthpiece and that's
where the problem hit, I think.
P: How would you assess overall her fairness, in terms of the decision about
certification and having the November 26 late certification end at 5:00 on Sunday
rather than waiting until Monday, and not accepting the late returns from Palm
N: I don't believe the public thought it was all that fair, because at that time you're
talking a matter of hours or a couple of days. She appeared to have the
discretion to do that and when she basically looked like she was looking for any
speck in the law that she could hang on to to shut the thing down as fast as she
could, that hurt her.
P: Do you think it was wise for her, at least in terms of public relations, to have
somebody like Mac Stipanovich in there calling the shots? It does appear, as
you indicated earlier, that she was a puppet and Mac was telling her how to act
and what to do. That public image was not very good, I don't think.
N: No, it wasn't very good, but she was stuck because, as you said, she wasn't
familiar with the intricacies of the law. She had a legal problem where she didn't
understand herself exactly what her options were and she had a political problem
because she has her own political ambitions. She's painted with this huge brush
as being so tight with the Bush camp when, in fact, I don't believe she was all
that close, with either Bush.
P: Lucy Morgan said the Bush people disliked her.
N: Right, and I agree with that. They weren't that close to her to begin with, but you
would have thought from the national media that she was sitting in there with Karl
Rove plotting every move. It didn't work like that.
P: There was an allegation that Jeb Bush had an affair with Katherine Harris.
N: That was just ridiculous.
P: Is it a problem, for both Butterworth and Katherine Harris as state officials,
particularly the Attorney General of the state, to be involved in national political
N: Well, it turned out it was. We haven't had this problem before, of course, but in
hindsight, that's probably not the best thing to be doing. Particularly a guy like
Butterworth, you can contrast with Katherine Harris. Butterworth [was] intimately
involved in the strategy of the Gore campaign, both nationally and particularly in
Florida, and was on the phone with him constantly that morning of the election
urging him, don't concede, don't get out, hang in there.
P: Later on, he really withdrew and after giving the opinion to Palm Beach County,
he changed the view on the military ballots, and after that, he, as I understand it,
was out of the picture.
N: Then he backed out. He did issue that one opinion. He was kind of in a box
because, as I recall, Palm Beach had gotten another opinion from a Republican.
P: What happened is that Judge Charles Burton [judge, County Court, Palm Beach
County; chairman, Palm Beach County Canvassing Board] was brand new. He
didn't know what to do and was advised by Kerey Carpenter [assistant general
counsel for the Florida Department of State] that you need to get an official
position from the Secretary of State. He didn't know that when you did that, the
ruling was binding. So he ended up having two competing opinions, one was
saying he couldn't continue, one was saying he could.
N: In that case, I don't think Butterworth had much choice because he's still the
Attorney General. He clearly thought that was wrong. He had to issue
something to at least get the thing back on an even keel, or the judge was going
to be stuck with what the [Attorney General] thought was really wrong advice.
P: How much influence, through this process in Florida, do you think Jeb Bush and
the Republican party had?
N: I think Jeb had plenty of influence. I think he handled that much more politically
astutely than Katherine Harris or Butterworth. He played it pretty smart because
he backed out fairly quickly from public view.
P: He got off the elections commission, for example.
N: Right. But I think anybody [who] thinks he didn't know exactly what was going on
every minute is kidding himself.
P: One of the things that I've learned, talking to both Republicans and Democrats,
is that the general consensus is that the Republicans, both on the national level
and the state level, out-organized and out-worked the Democrats. What would
your assessment be?
N: I think that's clear. They had more resources, more money, brought them in, and
I don't think the Democrats got organized as quickly and even then had all the
troops. In hindsight, they didn't have nearly the troops on the legal side.
Everybody was so captivated by David Boies [attorney for Al Gore in 2000
election], and I was among them, that you thought, here's this brilliant guy, he's
running over them. But he's basically one guy and they had waves of very smart
lawyers from all over the country. The same way with volunteers. I thought one
of the most fascinating stories came out of South Florida, where [Republicans]
had brought in all the Congressional staffers who weren't really giving their
names and just hopped on charter planes and came down. Of course, that didn't
really come out until well after even Thanksgiving, when it turned out they were
camped out in the hotel in South Florida and George W. Bush was beaming in a
congratulatory message to them on Thanksgiving Day saying, hang in there.
P: How important was that demonstration in Miami-Dade? As you recall, Miami-
Dade stopped the count and David Leahy [supervisor of elections, Miami-Dade
County; member, Miami-Dade County canvassing board] said later that we were
not intimidated, we didn't have enough time to complete the count.
N: I don't think there was any question they were intimidated. When you have
people like that banging on the door right outside and it's that sort of huge crowd,
you have to be intimidated. The pressure got to be too much [for them], and I
don't think they really understood who those people were who were knocking on
the door either. There was sort of the perception [that] the public is fed up with
this, but it wasn't the public, it was staffers and hard-core supporters that largely
had been bussed in.
P: The people I've talked to who were involved in that said the crowd was really out
of control and that can be terrifying if you don't know how to control it. Also, it
seems to me that when I talked to the Republicans, they were really organized.
They had somebody in Judge Terry Lewis's [Leon County Circuit Court, 1988-
present] court, they had somebody in the 11 Court of Appeals. When I talked to
the Democrats, they were meeting in Mitch Berger's [attorney for Al Gore in 2000
election] office, then they moved over the Dexter Douglass' office and they were
getting set up. They were a day behind, I think, on some of these issues and
some of these legal briefs that they might have been better prepared for. Do you
think that was an issue?
N: I think it was a huge issue. They just were out-manned. No matter how good
David Boies or Dexter Douglass is, there weren't enough hours in the day to do
everything and be everywhere that you had to be, and the Republicans were
really organized in all sixty-seven counties. They were monitoring every
P: One of the early court decisions is by Judge Donald Middlebrooks [U.S. District
Court], and the Bush team tries to get an injunction to stop the recount. Do you
recall his decision and what your view of that was?
P: He stopped it. He said that it was a state matter rather than a federal matter.
This is why I wanted to bring this up, he said, there are discrepancies in the
counties because that's the way it works. There are sixty-seven different
counties, they use different machines, they're going to count differently. We've
been doing this for years. Of course there may be some problems, but that's the
system and you can't stop the recount, because the recount, according to Florida
law, was legal. Otherwise they wouldn't have a recount. But that issue sort of
gets lost over a period of time, as you know, and the United States Supreme
Court comes in and says it is a violation of the 14th Amendment if you count
differently. In the beginning, you don't hear any of that. The 11th Circuit Court of
Appeals turned down the appeal from Judge Middlebrooks' decision. They don't
see a 1st Amendment or a 14th Amendment issue. In the first U.S. Supreme
Court remand, they don't talk about the 14th Amendment and it's not until the final
5-4 decision that you see that. Were you surprised that the 14th Amendment was
an issue, particularly in Justice William Rehnquist's [U.S. Supreme Court Justice,
1972-present, Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, 1986-present] court?
N: At the end, yeah. With the U.S. Supreme Court's final opinion and the way they
relied on that? I think it was clear that Saturday before, when they stopped the
recount midstream, and if you remember, you had the issue and the stay, and
you had other [justices] weighing in.
P: Particularly Justice Antonin Scalia [U.S. Supreme Court Justice, 1986-present].
N: That's where it was going to head. [Gore was] done then. If you recall, they were
in the middle of the recount that Saturday, [Bush] got the stay, and [the battle]
moved back to Washington. I flew back [to St. Petersburg] on that Sunday,
because we knew it was going to depend on what the court did in Washington
and I didn't think they were ever going to count another ballot and that's the way
it turned out. Because you just thought, well, it's going to end up 5-4.
P: An issue that I find very interesting is the military and the overseas absentee
ballots. The law is somewhat confusing because in 1982, there was a federal
administrative agreement that they would allow ten days after the election for
absentee ballots, overseas ballots, not just military ballots, to come in. Mark
Herron's argument is that it really doesn't matter because state law takes
precedence. You have to have it mailed by November 7, and therefore you have
to have a postmark, otherwise how would you know when it's mailed? It has to
be signed by a witness and it has to have an APO [Army Post Office] or similar
postmark. He argues that the Republicans counted a large number of illegal
votes, votes that were not legal by Florida law and they had used the argument
that you're not going to deny the military the right to vote. In Duval County, they
went back and recounted. Somebody estimated maybe 600 to 800 absentee
ballots statewide were counted after that period. Do you have any sense of what
went on in that context?
N: Well, see that's where the Bush camp won the PR [public relations] argument
because they had dual arguments going that were situational, depending on what
court and what venue and what issue they were arguing. On the one hand,
they're arguing you have to stick with the rules. If you're with Secretary of State
Katherine Harris, you have to follow the rules exactly. But when they're over
here on the overseas ballots, no, we don't want to follow the rules, because it's
not fair, you have to let all the ballots in, no matter what these little picky,
technical rules are. They were really smart at adapting their argument and their
strategy really to situations. It had nothing to do with hard-core bedrock
philosophy, it had everything to do with, what is the situation and the best
argument to get where we want to go?
P: At one point the Democrats accused Bush of being guilty of hyper-technicality but
the Democrats were the same way. They were just as bad, arguing to count all
the votes and then they don't want to count all the military votes. Do you think
the election turned on these absentee ballots? It was a great boon to Bush
overall, it increased his lead to, I think, 930 votes, at one point.
N: I think there were probably more votes lost through the confusion among voters
that were trying to vote for Gore, particularly those first-time voters. He probably
lost more votes than Bush gained through the overseas and absentee ballots.
P: One thing I thought was interesting was that the absentee ballots were counted
differently in different counties. For example, I've talked to the election
supervisors and learned that a ballot that would not have been counted in
Alachua County was counted in Okaloosa County. Isn't that a violation of the
N: Well, that goes back to what Middlebrooks was saying, though, that there have
been different standards all along. I don't think the public or the media
understood exactly how widely they varied from county to county.
P: The New York Times did a study of all this and one of the things they found was
that ballots were accepted in Santa Rosa County postmarked November 8, that's
an illegal ballot. Five were postmarked November 17, that's ten days after the
deadline. Two ballots were accepted that came by fax, that's illegal. There were
a lot of illegal ballots that were counted, partly as I understand, due to some
intimidation. In some of these canvassing boards, Republican lawyers came and
said, if you don't count these votes, it's a violation of federal law. You can go to
N: You have to remember, these [are] hotshot lawyers, well-paid, experienced
lawyers, showing up in these little county courthouses. They're going to these
canvassing boards, but these canvassing boards never got any scrutiny. Who
ever went to a canvassing board before?
P: People didn't even know what they did.
N: All of a sudden, in some of these Panhandle places, there were a couple of
stories where the guys were going fishing that Saturday morning on that last
recount, they didn't want to come back and do that. So when a big-time out-of-
town lawyer shows up and threatens them with federal court, that can be awfully
scary and they're probably thinking, the alternative is [to] get in this fight with this
lawyer [that] I don't know or go ahead and count this vote where somebody was
trying to count something.
P: Plus, in Escambia and Okaloosa Counties, I'm sure there were a lot of local
people who were in incensed that they were not counting these military ballots.
N: You can't still live there and say, I'm not letting your boys from overseas have
their vote be counted.
P: Do you think the Gore legal team made a mistake anyway, despite the public
relations problem, of not challenging those votes?
N: Well, they were stuck. I think they should have stuck with their Herron memo,
explained it better, and said, look, this doesn't make sense. You can't vote in
Fort Lauderdale or St. Petersburg or Tampa on November 8, and we ought not
let somebody else vote on November 8, no matter where they are. I think if they
could have explained it in a more simple direct way, they could have stuck with it,
but they can't be giving ground like Lieberman did on those Sunday talk shows,
because then it's all over.
P: They Democrats brought Bob Kerrey [U.S. Senator from Nebraska, 1989-2001]
in, who is a Vietnam veterann, and he was saying the same thing. He said, I'm a
vet, but if I vote illegally, it ought not be counted. Also, there were a lot of illegal
ballots in Duval County where the instructions said, vote every page. The
argument was that the Duval County canvassing board allowed the military
ballots, but would not allow the African American ballots. They were saying, if
African Americans are too dumb to vote properly, we're not going to count them.
So here was a double standard. Did you see any of that?
N: Well sure, particularly in Duval, because we did the recount with the newspaper
consortium. If you recall, that was one of the counties where it was very hard to
[verify] any of these numbers. You count them and every time you get a different
P: There were about 19,000 over-votes in Duval. It was a huge number.
N: Right. When you have that many over-votes, you know you have a problem.
P: How accurate do you think that recount was?
N: Which one?
P: The one you did with the consortium.
N: I think it was about as scientific and accurate as you can get. If you did it all over
again, would you get a different number? You'd get a different number. But I'm
pretty confident that the trends and the general state of the direction of what the
findings were were about as accurate as you can get. I went into it not [being]
sure of the outcome or confident that this was the right strategy to try to
[demonstrate] what would have happened if the recount [had] continued. You
have to remember that is what was different [from] any of the other studies. We
tried to take these different standards in each of these sixty-seven counties,
apply them as those counties were going to, and then continue that recount from
the point that it had stopped. And that really hadn't been done before.
P: So in Palm Beach, you have continued the two-corner chad, light coming
through, whatever standard they were using.
N: Right. I wasn't sure we'd be able to pull that off, and we weren't sure what we
would find. You have to remember, we applied a lot of different standards and
tried it and we decided before we knew what the results were going to be, which
sort of standards we were going to apply. We tried the two-corner chad
statewide, and we had the clean-punch statewide, and we had all these different
arbitrary things, and then we had this one over here that was trying to replicate
what the real world was going to be. At The St. Petersburg Times we decided,
before any of the numbers came in from the consortium, that was the number we
were going to focus on. We thought that was the fairest way to do it, so that in
hindsight, if anybody, and of course everybody did say, this is not fair, you
slanted it this way or that way, we could come back and say, we chose the
standard that we thought was going to be most enlightening in the scenario that
most [represented] the real world. That's the way we wound up with the headline
that Bush still would have won.
P: Would he have won under any of those conditions?
N: Bush would have won any hand recount that did not count over-votes. If you just
count the under-votes, Gore can't win. But if you count the under-votes and the
over-votes, then he [Gore] won every time, didn't matter what the standard was.
P: On many of the over-votes, sometimes the machine wouldn't pick it up because
they might circle Gore and write in Gore, but a person viewing that would know
that was a vote for Gore.
N: Viewing the ballot....
P: ....trying to determine the intended vote could say this is a Bush vote or a Gore
vote. Did you look at a lot of the over-votes?
N: I looked at some of the ballots and [it's] remarkable how badly a voter can foul
one up. You could look at them and say, you can clearly see what they're trying
to do, but why in the world would you do that?
P: But isn't that technically an illegal ballot? If you don't vote according to the rules,
and if you vote for four candidates for president, why should your vote count?
N: Well, it goes back, I think, to the intent of the voter from what the law said. I
thought that the law clearly said [that] to try to determine the intent of the voter is
what these canvassing boards are supposed to do. It turned out they had never
done that, really. That wasn't really their common practice to try to determine
what the intent was at all.
P: That brings up another point that's interesting. When the one-half of 1 percent
recount was triggered, I've discovered that about forty-one of the sixty-seven
counties re-tallied the machine totals. They did not recount ballots.
N: Right. It was a misnomer to call it [a recount], and we did it, everybody did it,
called] it a recount. A lot of them just checked their computers, made sure that
the numbers [matched], and that was it. So to call it a recount was really wrong.
They weren't recounting anything.
P: Some people have argued that the press let Jim Baker [U.S. Secretary of State,
1989-1992; Campaign Manager for President George Bush, 1988; White House
Chief of Staff under President Reagan, 1981-1985] get away with the statement
that the votes had been counted, recounted, and recounted, when in fact it was
N: That goes back to the political strategy of keep hammering home your point.
Doesn't matter whether it's wrong or right, just keep hammering the same thing
until it finally goes into the public mind.
P: Do you think the press did a good job of explaining that issue? Even as I talk to
people today, a lot of people are not aware that was actually the case. I talked to
David Cardwell [attorney, CNN elections analyst] who's an expert on Florida
election law, and he says very clearly, when it says recount, that's not the tally of
the machines, it means recount the votes.
N: I'm not sure that we knew that either. I think very few reporters focused on that,
because we're on uncharted territory just as the politicians and the government
[End of side Al]
P: One election supervisor and a couple of reporters I've talked to indicated that we
will never know who won the election, because when the votes were recounted,
particularly from the punch machines, there were some chads that fell out. Do
you think that's a fair assessment?
N: That's right. I don't think you'll ever know exactly what the precise vote total
ought to be, because it varied. Every time you sent them through, a chad fell off,
all sorts of different things. I do think that if somebody were to try to replicate
what the newspaper consortium did, which is impossible now, but if somebody
[did], I think you could probably find the same trend and come up with the same
general analysis that, if you counted them this way, Bush would win, and if you
counted them the other way, Gore would win. But to try to come up with
[something] even close to the exact same number, you're never going to do it.
P: In the Florida Supreme Court decision of November 21, they came in and
prevented Katherine Harris from certifying the election and voted 7-0 that Palm
Beach and Broward counties could continue the hand recount and they extended
the deadline until Sunday, November 26 at 5:00. Why do you think they picked
that date? It's kind of an arbitrary date.
N: There was another deadline coming up that next week.
P: The overseas ballots were due on November 17, so she would have certified all
of that by the 17th, but on the 21st they would not let her certify. This is going to
be important later because the United States Supreme Court argued they were
making the law by changing the date. Did you feel they were interpreting law or
N: Well, they had to extend the date, I think, or they wouldn't accomplish what they
were trying to accomplish to get the work done.
P: As a matter of fact, they argued, and unfortunately not at this time, but later on,
that Katherine Harris had held up the process of counting and therefore she
caused them to lose five days, so they added five days. At the time, they didn't
explain why they made that decision, and that's going to be a problem with
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor [U.S. Supreme Court Justice, 1981-present]. In
the process, we hear about the Florida Supreme Court as Dexter Douglass' court
and that it's liberal, and that they're all Democrats. Was that a fair judgment?
N: I think the only thing fair about that was saying that they were all appointed that
way. Since the corruption was rooted out more than twenty or thirty years ago, I
think that court has been held in high esteem for the quality of their opinions and
their thoughtfulness. Have they been an activist court? They were pretty active,
and they were pretty active on issues, whether it was abortion or the death
penalty or constitutional amendments. I didn't think it was out of character for
them at all to step in and aggressively say, this is what ought to be done and
here's a roadmap to get to it. I think reporters in Florida generally were surprised
by the vehemence of the attacks on the state Supreme Court that largely came
from outside the state.
P: Particularly Jim Baker.
P: It's interesting to note that they ruled against Gore on several occasions. They
ruled against him on the butterfly ballot, they upheld the Judge Lewis and Judge
Nikki Clark [Leon County Circuit Court] decision, so several key decisions went
against Gore. They wouldn't resume the count in Miami Dade.
N: We had done stories in that time period too, to say you didn't have to look back
too long to Governor Lawton Chiles [Florida governor 1991-1998 (died in office);
U.S. Senator from Florida, 1971-1989]. He didn't win everything he went across
the street to get either, and he appointed a lot of those guys.
P: Talk about the contest with Judge Sanders Sauls. You observed a lot of that
case. Describe the courtroom and analyze how Judge Sauls performed.
N: I think Judge Sauls, in some ways, let the thing get away from him, just as
Katherine Harris let some things get away from her, because they're not used to
that kind of scrutiny, and they're not used to that sort of spotlight on them. While
he tried to probably run the court like he usually did, in sort of a common-sense,
down-home, folksy way, [that approach] didn't really work all that well because
those lawyers [who] parachuted in there were trying to run over him.
P: And there were a bunch of them.
N: And there were a bunch of them from all over the place, with different styles. If
you think about Judge Sauls' position, he has David Boies on the one side, who
loves to hear the sound of his own voice and is standing up there without notes,
citing opinions from all over the place, and then you have literally this army of
lawyers over here on the other side from the Bush camp, who were all very
sharp, and then you had Dexter Douglass on the Gore side, who is really the only
familiar face you got.
P: How well did Dexter Douglass and Boies do? Of course, it was probably a
presentation, as I've talked to them, that they didn't really expect to win anyway.
N: I was very impressed with David Boies, as I think everybody was, because [he
was] a guy [who] could talk that eloquently and not get bogged down in a bunch
of arcane detail that you couldn't understand. He would cite cases that he could
explain, and talk to the judge and talk to the court just as he talked to reporters
outside, in a way that you thought you understood what he was talking about.
But in hindsight, he was really almost in the position of having to wing it just a bit
because he didn't have the firepower behind him.
P: Plus he didn't have a knowledge of Florida election law. I've talked to Mitch
Berger and a lot of these other guys who had to come and sort of brief him on
Florida election law. Some criticized him for spending too much time with the
press and not enough time working on the case.
N: I would bet that's probably a valid criticism, because he spent a lot of time on
television, but you have to remember they didn't really have a spokesman. They
had Jim Baker on the other side, but Warren Christopher [U.S. Secretary of
State, 1993-1997] was not really a good counterpart.
P: And Christopher and William Daley [campaign manager for Al Gore in 2000
election; Secretary of Commerce, 1997-2000] eventually went home.
N: So then they're stuck, they don't have anybody. All they [have] is Boies and he's
very comfortable in front of a camera.
P: How did Barry Richard [attorney for George W. Bush in 2000 election] do?
N: Barry Richard did remarkably well. I think that's probably one of the biggest
unforeseen occurrences, because if you remember in the first state Supreme
Court decision, they didn't really have Barry, they had another fellow from out-of-
state, I think [it was] Michael Carvin [attorney for George W. Bush in 2000
P: I can't remember, but they got rid of him.
N: They got rid of him pretty quick because he did terribly in the first court hearing
and they needed somebody that knew Florida law, knew their way around, and
could explain it in much the [same] way that Mitchell Berger and Dexter Douglass
were explaining it to David Boies. The benefit was that Barry Richard could also
get up and talk in court very effectively and he became, in a lot of ways, their
P: In the decision made by Judge Sauls, he argued that it did not prove to be a
probability of changing the vote count, although he brought all the votes to
Tallahassee but didn't count them. He also ruled that the canvassing boards had
not violated their discretion, that they'd been fair. Did you agree with that
N: I was not surprised that he went that way. I don't know that I would have ruled
that way if I were a judge, but as a reporter I thought it was a pretty compelling
case that there were some ballots that needed to be counted. But I think Judge
Sauls really wanted to get this out of his courtroom, and I think he probably
understood that he wasn't going to be the final word anyway, so let's move this
thing along and get it to whatever Supreme Court was going to make the ultimate
decision, because he wasn't going to get to in the first place.
P: David Boies argued vigorously that he should have counted the votes. How can
you make an assessment of whether it would change the probability of the
outcome unless you count the votes? I think both he and Dexter Douglass
wanted to get it to the Florida Supreme Court as soon as possible. The Florida
Supreme Court rules 4-3 to overturn Judge Sauls. Were you surprised by that
N: I was surprised that it was 4-3. You have to remember, the first one was 7-0.
You clearly see in the second one that well, okay, now there's a split where
everybody's not comfortable pushing this thing as hard as they did the first time.
They'd already gotten considerable criticism, and you'll never know exactly how
much that played into what they were thinking.
P: The Florida Supreme Court decided to certify the Palm Beach County votes, the
Miami-Dade votes, and they did not, interestingly enough, give him those fifty-
one votes in Nassau County. Nassau had first recounted and they went back to
the machine count after the recount. The court said, statewide, to count all the
under-votes and the question always has been, why didn't they also count the
N: You have to wonder whether people really understood, even the justices, what
was involved with the over-votes, because if you recall, even in the newspapers
and even the lawyers, there weren't very many people talking about the over-
votes. That was another Gore mistake. Everybody focused on the under-votes,
because the law largely talked about the under-votes and you were looking for
things that didn't register. Under-votes meant it didn't count, because it didn't
pick up some way, in common language, and everybody kind of automatically
assumed an over-vote is just a [ballot] that [is] fouled up. In hindsight, the
broadest possible opinion would have been to count everything.
P: That's part of what Gore, in hindsight, should have done.
P: Chief Justice Charlie Wells [Florida Supreme Court, 1994-present] had a very
vigorous dissent from the 4-3 decision and he ended up saying that this would
lead to a constitutional crisis. Some of the people I've talked to said that Wells
made his statement because he feared the Florida legislature was going to
undermine the authority of the Florida Supreme Court. He figured that the 4-3
was lost anyway, although I think he truly disagreed with this decision. I think his
dissent was so vigorous perhaps to hold off Tom Feeney [Florida state
representative, 1990-1994, 1996-present; speaker of Florida House of
Representatives, 2001-present] and any more reforms of the Florida Supreme
N: That's a whole other dynamic. Before even the recount ever came up, they were
already under attack from the Republican legislature across the street, because
the Republican legislature didn't like what the [Florida] Supreme Court was doing
on abortion [and] they didn't like what they were doing on some of the
government reforms that they had passed. They were on a bit of a losing streak
over at the Supreme Court and they were already looking at ways to try to
change the way Supreme Court justices got to the bench. [The justices] had to
be sensitive to that. Then you've got Feeney pushing and pushing and saying,
we're going to take charge. Let me get on CNN, we'll take charge and straighten
this out, and we'll appoint the electors and decide the thing ourselves. I think that
had to play a role.
P: How significant was it that the House voted to do so, but the Senate never voted.
Wouldn't that set a rather dangerous precedent?
N: Sure, it'd be a very dangerous precedent. What we don't know is how long the
Senate could have held out. If things had broken the other way and the timing
had been a bit different, I don't know that the state Senate could have held out
much longer since the House had already voted. They were the ones that turned
out to be the measured folks and [wanted to] see how this plays out a little bit,
but they were under tremendous pressure to go ahead and [vote].
P: Do you think Jeb Bush was applying pressure to the legislature or is this primarily
Tom Feeney? Clearly, [John] McKay [Florida state senator, 1990-present;
president of Florida senate, 2001-2002] was a little reluctant to do this.
N: I don't know that Governor Bush could have applied much effective pressure to
the Senate President, because they weren't on the best of terms anyway. I don't
know what he did in that regard and I'm not sure how much effect that would
have [had] in the first place.
P: Does the legislature have the constitutional right to appoint the electors in case
there is a conflict over the electoral vote? Some people argue that under Section
2 of the Constitution that it's the legislature's prerogative.
N: I just don't believe it's that clear. I think particularly when it was in a court battle
like that, it was probably premature for them to jump in, because the court cases,
whether you agreed or disagreed, were proceeding along. [The cases] were
going up and down the food-chain of the court system and the legislature was
kind of trying to come in around from the side, it appeared. In hindsight, I think
some of these federal deadlines about when the electors had to be in place and
what happened if your state's electors weren't in place maybe were a little bit of
false deadlines. Those things weren't [written] in stone and irrevocable, as some
people thought at the beginning.
P: One of the things I've learned in doing some research is that the December 12
Safe Harbor date is not mandatory, it's optional, you don't have to do it. Plus,
that date is merely to safeguard the electoral votes. The election goes on until a
president is inaugurated and the United States Congress, if there is a debate,
can resolve it. There are constitutional ways that it can be resolved and so the
Republicans wanted that December 12 as the cut-off date.
N: If you recall, we were all obsessed with December 12. We must have written 100
times that by December 12, you have to have this thing done. In hindsight, that
probably wasn't right.
P: Certainly December 18 would have been a reasonable date. The United States
Supreme Court said on December 12, we only have two hours left, I don't think
we can continue any more counting. Talk about the 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court
decision. Were you surprised that they took the case at all?
N: No, I wasn't surprised they took the case because they had to do something, the
Bush camp had to do something and it was going to get there one way or the
other. I was a little bit surprised that they stopped the recount in midstream,
because they were making pretty good progress on that Saturday, if you recall.
P: They probably would've finished.
N: They could've gotten the thing done. They probably could've [finished] it by the
deadline. It was going to get to the Supreme Court one way or the other. When
you talk about an activist court, I really thought it was activist to jump in in the
middle of the recount and stop it, but once they stopped it I didn't see any way
they were going to let it restart again.
P: Some observers have described the decision as a partisan political decision. Do
you think it's not grounded very well in constitutional theory, that five people
wanted Bush to be president?
N: It's hard to say what the motivations are of the U.S. Supreme Court. I think it
was clear it was probably going to be a 5-4 decision. What their motivations
were is hard to tell.
P: One of the interesting dissents was Justice Stephen Breyer [U.S. Supreme
Court, 1994-present], who said, listen, there's time. We can remand this case to
the Florida Supreme Court, have them set a standard and continue the counting.
Obviously, that didn't get very much support, but it was interesting that even at
that point he thought there was time.
N: That probably was about the most reasonable recommendation [to] have a
statewide recount to one standard, and then you're done.
P: There were other strong dissents, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg [U.S. Supreme
Court, 1993-present] in particular was very upset about it. Justice John Paul
Stevens [U.S. Supreme Court, 1975-present] said that the decision was wholly
without merit and that the real loser in this whole business was the United States
Supreme Court. Do you think it hurt the credibility of the United States Supreme
N: I think it hurt the credibility of the court, but probably not as much as it would
[have] in another era, because it's all colored by politics. Republicans are still in
charge of the House, they've got the presidency, and most people moved on
fairly quickly. I think at the time there was damage, but it's turning out now that it
probably was short-term.
P: Was this a decision that's going to have broad impact? The U.S. Supreme Court
said that this decision was just for this election, but Boies argued that this is what
they call a reasonable man standard. If you have a situation in South Carolina,
the jury might vote for the death penalty, whereas in Idaho they might not. Every
state has a different standard and reasonable people make judgments all the
time without any official standard and he thought that it was unfair for them to
come in and try to create a standard. The argument he made was that if you
carry this to the logical conclusion, there'll be one voting machine and one
standard for the whole country.
N: Right. And that probably wouldn't be the worst thing in the world.
P: No. But that's not what the outcome was.
N: No, that wasn't the outcome.
P: Not even in Florida.
N: Right. We're not going to know how far-reaching this is until [we] get in another
situation like this, because you don't know whether the next court is really going
to abide by what they said in [saying,] this only applies to [the 2000 election].
When they put that in there, to me, that made it clear [that] this is political,
because generally that's not what the Supreme Court does. They set precedent
and it's supposed to stand for future cases. They don't generally say okay, we're
deciding this, but it only applies over here.
P: Plus, any disputed election you could appeal on the 14th Amendment because
there are always going to be different standards and different machines. That
seems to be an ongoing legal issue. What would have happened if this case had
gone to the Supreme Court and Gore was ahead? Do you think the vote would
have been the same?
N: We don't know. It's very hard to tell, because you have one or two of those
justices [that are] a little bit in the middle that can go either way and you'll just
never know how that [would have] worked out.
P: Justice David Souter [U.S. Supreme Court, 1990-present] said if he had one
more day, he might have been able to persuade Justice Anthony M. Kennedy
[U.S. Supreme Court, 1988-present] to come over. Some people argue it was a
7-2 decision because seven found problems with the differing standard. Boies
said that they were in a catch-22. If they had set a standard, they would have
been making the law, therefore they would have been overruled by the Supreme
Court. If they didn't set a standard, they would have violated the 14th
Amendment. Boies said that he didn't think they could win either way.
N: Probably right.
P: What impact has this had on the state of Florida?
N: I think there's been a couple of positive impacts. In general, people that didn't
pay attention to politics paid more attention. I think it's been good that we got
new voting machines in a lot of counties and replaced these [machines] that
should have been replaced a long time ago. I think it's good that we'll have some
voter education programs, probably not as extensive or with as much money [as]
they ought to have, but we'll probably have something better than we had before.
I think it exposed the fact that elections are not exact science and are even less
exact than we all thought they were. I think it's had some bad and negative
impact, as well. I think some people have lost confidence in the system,
particularly voters who went to the polls for the first time and were persuaded for
one reason or another to register to vote and to go in and to try to vote.
Particularly those black voters, who didn't know whether their vote would be
counted or not, are rightfully pretty discouraged. It will be interesting to see,
particularly in this governor's race, what sort of turnout you have in those
P: Do you think there might be more willingness now for people to vote because
they can see that their vote counts?
N: That's what we're going to find out. I think there could be, if they get over some
initial uncomfortableness with these new machines. I don't think we're going to
have [fear of] those new machines here in Pinellas County. We've used them
already for one local election and they seem to work pretty well. They've had
them in the malls, they've had them in the schools and it's going to, I think, turn
on how comfortable are you with that machine.
P: Because you have touchscreens now?
N: We'll have touchscreens, yeah.
P: I've talked to Pam lorio, the supervisor of elections for Hillsborough County, and
they already had some problems with them. I talked to people in Palm Beach,
who had an election and they had problems with those machines too, partly
because very few people have used touchscreens. I thought in the Election
Reform Act of 2001 that they ought to have picked one machine. This scan
machine seems to be most effective, if it's precinct-based, because it will throw
out an over-vote.
N: Right. It has to be precinct-based to work and that's what they found in Central
Florida after the election where they couldn't understand what the problem was.
It turned out that those had an enormous error rate too, where they were counted
at a central location, because you still fouled up. I think it came down to a money
thing, as it always does in Florida. Who's going to pay for it? There wasn't
enough money at the state level or the county level to get everybody new
machines, and some folks said, wait a minute, these machines we have that are
precinct-based worked pretty well, so you're stuck.
P: They did get rid of all the punch cards. Also the Election Reform Act set up, for
the first time, and I don't think it's been in the state before, the provisional ballot.
How do you feel about that?
N: I think that's a good step in the right direction. You ought to be able to do that.
P: At the end of the Election Reform Act, they decide to do away with the primary
for a two-year period. Do you think that was deliberately political?
N: Well sure, it had to be deliberately political. Anything that's only a one-time deal
and we'll see how it works, and by the way, the party in charge, their governor is
running for reelection, is political.
P: Theoretically, if you carry that to the logical conclusion, they would like to see
Janet Reno [U.S. Attorney General, 1993-2001] get the Democratic nomination
because it would be easier for Jeb Bush to beat her.
N: Of course, [also] at the time that they did that, they weren't sure what the
Democratic line-up was going to look like. There were a lot of names floating
around and it could have been a much broader primary than the Democrats are
going to wind up with.
P: Was the national media unfair to Florida in its criticism? I noticed that, for
example, South Carolina had more over-votes and under-votes than Florida did.
N: Well, it was unfair in that regard, but that's what comes with being the largest
state with the most electoral votes still left out there, so in some ways it was the
luck of the draw. In a close election it could have easily been South Carolina, it
could have been Illinois, it could have been any number of other states.
P: Did you uncover any fraud?
N: We didn't uncover any fraud. What was interesting was, we did a statewide poll
in spring of 2001, only of black voters, and asked them questions about who you
hold responsible and are you aware of fraud. One of the questions we asked
was to the effect of whether you or somebody you knew was denied [fair access
to voting in the election]. [One-third] said yes, either they or somebody they knew
[experienced the problem]. Well, that's ridiculously high and nobody had really
found any stories like that. There were a couple of stories about the Highway
Patrol doing some roadblocks here or there, but it was all very nebulous stuff.
When you do these polls, you get a list of respondents who have agreed to give
their phone number to a reporter and we called dozens of those folks and asked
them, did you answer that question affirmatively? If they said yes, we said, tell
us what happened, we'd like to go investigate it. A lot of these things would be,
well, I heard my neighbor said, or something happened that I thought wasn't fair.
What's remarkable is [that] you cannot pin that down, but that doesn't invalidate
the opinion of those voters who are firmly convinced that they were defrauded
out of the election.
P: I did a little investigation in Tallahassee where there was a roadblock. It lasted
two hours, they stopped twice as many whites as blacks, it was not near a polling
place. I read the Civil Rights Commission report and all of that seems highly
anecdotal. Some of the people who claim they were not allowed to vote were in
the wrong precinct, in the wrong polling place. Of course, they're not going to be
on the register because they're not at the right place. The phone lines did get
tied up, but they were tied up for everybody. It's hard to see discrimination in
this, is it?
N: It's very hard to see. I think what we had was an ineffective, arcane voting
system. There were a lot of things that happened, but you couldn't pin down
intent anywhere that I've read or reported.
P: Isn't it pretty remarkable that in an election this close there was no fraud?
N: Well, that's not to say there wasn't any, there might have been, but if it was it had
to be fairly isolated, because when you think of the number of investigations and
reporters and lawyers running around, even today, you have yet to see really one
P: We're talking about Miami as well, which has sort of a tradition of that sort of
N: If you look at what had happened in a Miami local election where The Miami
Herald demonstrated outright fraud through a lot of just hard work, investigative
reporting, we don't have anything like that in this election.
P: If this had been done in Illinois, I dare say, close investigation would have turned
up some dead voters and that sort of thing. That really is a positive element
here, that while there were some foul-ups here and there, by-and-large this
election was run fairly.
N: Right. There's no evidence that it was rigged, it just didn't work out smoothly.
P: How significant were the actions of election supervisors Sandra Goard
[supervisor of elections, Seminole County] and Peggy Robbins [supervisor of
elections, Martin County]? They allowed the Republicans to come in and add
voter identification numbers to applications for absentee ballots. In Martin
County, they actually took those applications out of the supervisor's office. Do
you think that was a major factor in this election?
N: It was probably somewhat of a contributing factor and it seemed to me that she
surely bent the rules and the laws from what you were really strictly supposed to
P: Although both Judge Clark and Judge Lewis said that, while they used bad
judgment, they hadn't really broken the law and ultimately they couldn't throw out
all the ballots because they didn't know which ones were tainted.
N: Because there was really no intent that you could see.
P: Do you think that was a correct judgment?
N: I thought that was, because you couldn't figure out the right remedy.
P: That's right, there's technically no remedy at this point. In some cases, these
ladies are sort of heroic figures and it's quite clear that probably in Martin County
that may have come out to as many as 600 or 700 votes for George Bush.
That's enough to carry the day. How did all of this experience impact you, as you
look back on it eighteen months later?
N: Well, it's one of those once-in-a-career opportunities to see something of that
magnitude up close and first-hand. I think it gave me confidence that people do
care about the election and the electoral process. They want it to be fair, they
want it to be accurate, and they want to have confidence that their vote counted.
It also taught me the remarkable political power of national political parties and
their ability to instantly raise money and mobilize and organize something
staggering in magnitude. You just can't imagine putting something like that
together. It's remarkable really what both sides did, although the Republicans
were clearly better at it. It's interesting when you see that and you see the
personalities that came through. You talk about watching Judge Sauls struggle
with the high-powered lawyers, and Katherine Harris in the spotlight and how she
reacted to that, Barry Richard and how he emerged from basically a guy that not
very many folks knew outside of Tallahassee into a national figure all of a
sudden, overnight. It's remarkable to see how people in different levels respond
to that kind of pressure and that kind of scrutiny.
P: In a personal sense, what kind of physical and mental toll did these thirty-six
days have on you?
N: Well, I was worn out for a long time. You have to remember too that we, just like
the candidates, weren't starting fresh on November 8 when the recount started. I
counted up and I had spent something like 100 nights on the road that year,
covering the election. I can remember assuring my daughters who were eight
and six at the time, Dad will be home after November 7 and it's all over. It turned
out we were ready for a whole other race of those days that nobody counted on.
You ran on adrenaline just like those folks did, that's what reporters did, and
every day you got up and you just went as hard as you could. A lot of those
stories and a lot of those key events during those thirty-six days didn't happen
until well after dark. So you'd be off reporting one way and at 8:00, 9:00, 10:00
at night all of a sudden you're doing a 180 based on some court decision or
some news conference or Al Gore said something. There was never any point
where you could let your guard down.
P: One person said that George Bush lost the election but won the recount. What
would you comment on that?
N: I'd say that's probably pretty accurate.
P: Is there anything else that we didn't talk about? There are hundreds of issues
here, but is there anything else that you, in particular, would like to discuss or
bring up that we haven't mentioned, or any special stories that you might have?
N: There were a couple of stories in Tallahassee during that last two weeks there
that I enjoyed doing. I remember one where we caught up with Governor Bush
after one of these totally unrelated press conferences. A few of the Florida
reporters tackled him outside the hotel and it was a little bit of a test, this was at a
time when he had pulled back, but I got to ask him a series of questions. By that
time there had been several court decisions and I asked him about each one and
he kind of wound up giving his take on each of the decisions and each of the
things in a kind of rapid-fire [responses]. It was just interesting to see him as
commentator and clearly following these all very closely and quite an astute
observer. There was another one where [it was] Dexter Douglass's birthday, I
can't remember how old he was, [but] he was getting up there and his birthday
occurred in that [time]. I called him and we were talking about all these cases
and he said, well, it's my birthday and I'm doing this and I'm getting ready to go
off on a farm and [herd] some cattle. It was just interesting, here this guy is at
the spotlight of an international crisis almost and here he is talking about the
cattle and his birthday.
P: He actually told me that, in the middle of this, that he had a calf that was being
born and they had some problems with it and he had to go back out to the farm.
He said that was a lot more important than some of these legal things.
N: Interesting how those sort of historic legal cases intersect with people's personal
P: Plus, some people can deal with that pressure a little more easily, and Dexter
has been on a lot of tough cases. I said, this is a little different. And he said, we
understood the long-term ramifications, but you can't lose yourself in this case,
otherwise you can't perform well. You need to go home and get some sleep and
eat a meal, which was difficult, of course, for the press. It was hard to get a place
to stay, hard to get a meal. People kept running out of underwear and clothes
and socks because they didn't expect to stay that long.
N: The other sort of interesting phenomenon that other people have talked about,
and I did a few television things during the campaign and a few radio things, but
because I stayed here for half that time in the recount and then parachuted in
there late, I didn't really get wrapped up into that. It's still stunning to walk out
there to the state Capitol and you have these rows of television cameras and
virtually every Florida reporter you know has got some earplug in their ear talking
on some cable television channel, and it's your twenty seconds of fame. I don't
expect we'll ever see anything like that again.
P: The Japanese television, internationally, the whole world was literally watching
this twenty-four hours a day. One final comment. When I talked to Tom Fiedler,
the editorial page editor of The Miami Herald, he said that he thought this was a
time when newspapers really shone. CNN and the networks could give you a
quick overview, but the newspapers had to analyze these court decisions and
make some sophisticated judgments and go into some detail, and that was really
a significant period for newspapers because they were providing information that
people couldn't get anywhere else.
N: I agree with that and in ways now very much reminiscent of 9/11 [September 11,
2001 date of terrorist attacks on U.S.] where newspapers, even more than
television folks turned to the newspapers to sort out the complicated issues
after 9/11. They also turned to the newspapers to sort out those post-election
things. That's one of the reasons that I stayed here and wrote the main story for
days on end after that, because I felt like I had been the point person for The St.
Petersburg Times in many ways on this campaign, from the beginning of Bush's
first trip to Iowa in the summer of 1999. My role as political editor really was to
try to distill for the reader each morning where we were, what had happened, the
importance of those things, and where it might go the next day. To do that, you
had to be able to see all these different things going on. While MSNBC or CNN
would flash something and it would seem like an emergency, [it] would seem
minor half an hour later. I think folks looked to the newspaper to bring that [into
perspective]. One of the best compliments I got from the whole experience was
[from] a woman who works here at the newspaper whose husband is a lawyer, a
prosecutor. He woke up one morning and was saying, there's just so much, I
want to know what's going on, but I don't know where to turn and I don't have
time to monitor this thing. She said, well, if you have one story to read, if you just
read that one that Tim Nickens wrote, that'll give you a sense of everything that's
going on. To me, that was unsolicited high praise, because that's what we were
trying to do. [We tried to] give people a sense of the important things, here's the
proper context that you can't get in the two-minute sound-bite, and here's where
it might go.
P: Okay, on that note, I want to end the interview. Thank you very much, Tim.
N: Thank you.
[End of the interview.]