November 7, 2000. It’s Election Day in Florida, and more than a few elderly voters seem perplexed over which hole to puncture indicating their choice of President. Indeed, because of the ballot design, some leave the polls fearing they voted for Pat Buchanan rather than Al Gore. At Gore campaign headquarters in Nashville, TN, counsel and erstwhile VP Chief of Staff Ron Klain (bumped after a power struggle with Tony Coelho) shares news of the discrepancy with Michael Whouley, Gore’s Chief Field Operative . This is no small matter; in a tight contest, both are certain the presidency will be decided on who wins Florida. Later, Klain visits the Gore inner sanctum, rejecting a less-than-plum job offer from campaign chairman Bill Daley (who, ironically, replaced Coehlo) should Gore win. Klain’s work will end after tonight – or so he thinks.
At Bush campaign headquarters in Austin, TX, campaign manager Joe Allbaugh and lead counsel Ben Ginsberg are optimistic. But at 7:49 p.m., CNN projects Gore as Florida’s winner, sending their hopes south. Two hours later, however, the networks take Florida out of Gore’s column, as late returns havemade the state too close to call. The about-face is complete a few hours later – ABC calls Florida for Bush, anointing him the 43rd President-elect. A despondent Klain learns that the VP called Bush to concede, and is on his way to a rally to formalize the concession. But after Whouley learns the projection is premature, aide David Morehouse rushes to track Gore down just before he steps on stage. The race will continue, despite Bush’s outrage when he gets a second call from Gore retracting his concession. That morning, State Secretary of State Katherine Harris awakes to a call from vexed Gov. Jeb Bush, the candidate’s brother. It’s the beginning of a period of intense exposure for the perky brunette, who makes the most of her media moments with eye-ca tching wardrobes and piles of makeup. Meanwhile, Director of Elections Clay Roberts determines that because Bush leads Gore by a mere 1,784 votes, a mandatory machine recount must take place. Aware that Harris, a Republican, is in charge of awarding the state’s 25 electorate votes, the Democrats enlist former Secretary of State Warren Christopher to oversee the recount process, while the Republicans counter with a former Secretary of State of their own, James Baker.
With six days until the certification deadline, Klain and Whouley debate the problems of recounting some 175,000 non-votes submitted with “hanging” or “dimpled” chad (the plural of which is the same as its singular), the tiny paper punchholes on the ballot. At a face-to-face meeting between Christopher and Baker, the latter refuses to compromise. But upon learning Gore’s deficit is down to 327 votes, Christopher agrees to lobby for a hand recount in four counties: Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade, and Volusia. As Harris continues to savour the spotlight, Republican lobbyist Mac Stipanovich (a.k.a. “Mac the Knife”) is enlisted to keep her in line with the party agenda. The Democrats, meanwhile, have sent a young attorney to Palm Beach to encourage Judge Charles Burton, the county’s canvassing board chairman, to seek out advisory opinions for recount statutes. After Christopher unexpectedly quits (his daughter is ill), Klain takes his place. He learns from Whouley that a code from Texas, signed into law by Bush, stipulates that when disputes arise, hand recounts are preferred over machine ones. Feeling a momentum shift, the Democrats enlist new attorneys to probe issues of African-American discrimination and absentee ballots. Klain also brings in crack appellate attorney David Boies to argue that Florida can accept la te votes; although Harris denies the request, the Florida Supreme Court allows a stay. But problems persist as Republican observers slow down the process with objections about individual ballots. Unexpectedly, Gore’s running mate, Joe Lieberman, endorses the Republican’s demands to count absentee military votes submitted after the deadline, ensuring more votes for Bush. Klain is further vexed when he learns that 20,000 people were disqualified from voting for being on a list of convicted felons – even though a vast majority weren’t.
In Miami, with Cubans still fuming over Pre s. Clinton’s deportation of Elian Gonzales, a band of Republicans infiltrates a building where the canvassing board is recounting. Matters get chaotic when a Democratic lawyer, retrieving a sample ballot, is accused of stealing an actual one. As the din rises, the board calls for a break, stunning Klain. Making matters worse, Burton says Palm Beach can’t finish counting unless Harris extends the deadline until the next morning. Roberts wants to OK the request but is overruled by Mac and Harris, who certifies Bush the winner of Florida's 25 electoral votes. The official margin: 537 votes. Klain's team isn’t finished. They file papers in circuit court to force Miami-Dade to resume its recount, and to get Palm Beach to recount dimpled-chad undervotes. Though they lose to a local judge, Klain is confident about winning on appeal. Gore calls Klain, wondering when to quit. Ron replies, “when all the votes have been counted and we know who really won, or when you can’t win even if you won.”
In a 4-to-3 ruling, the Florida Supreme Court orders the inclusion of a hand recount of some 40,000 undervotes, a triumph for Gore. To counter, Florida Speaker of the House Tom Feeney proposes the Florida Legislature award its 25 electoral vote s to Bush if the election is not resolved by December 12. Baker requests a stay from the U.S. Supreme Court to stop all recounts – and gets it. The scene shifts to Washington and a drama tic denouement in the U.S. Supreme Court, as attorneys and justices make their final points. Later, the verdict finally trickle s in to Klain’s fax, and it’s not good news: the recount must end. On the phone with his trusted aide, Gore sums up the twisted logic: “The Supreme Court shuts down the recount, causing us to miss our deadline , then says we can’t start up again because we missed the deadline.” Though Klain urges him not to give up the fight, Gore eventually echoes Klain’s own advice: he can’t win even if he wins. The war is over; as Klain checks out of town he runs into Baker, who congratulates his foe on a hard-fought campaign. George W. Bush gives a long-awaited victory speech, while the thousands of uncounted votes in Palm Beach County go into cold storage.