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How to Steal an Election

A new documentary, “537 Votes,” takes viewers back to the 2000 Florida recount—and shows how little has changed since then.

Robert King/Newsmakers

We never left. 

There are the little signs. The fact that everyone on every social media platform seems to have the same gif of Bugs Bunny sawing away the peninsula at the ready. The fact that the Florida weirdness evolved to anthropomorphize itself as Florida Man. The fact that, in certain contexts, the word “chad” still stings like accidentally biting down hard on tinfoil, or a grain of sand, or the wood of a popsicle stick. The way that, if you’re old enough, a pause between “butterfly” and the next word gets mentally autofilled with “ballot.”

Then there are the bigger ones. The hysterical polarization of epistemically closed media. People voting from retribution rather than for anything. A Democratic Party that will never let victory stand in the way of preserving the sort of dignity that will be immediately profaned and trammeled in defeat. And a Republican Party whose path to power steadily narrows toward apartheid. 

If you were old enough at the time, the 2000 presidential election recount in the state of Florida can feel like it never left. It’s a trauma ready to be felt again with the ring of a bell; 20 years dropped away in an instant, the ground below your feet unchanged, as suddenly you realize that The Recount, rather than ever end, has merely entered its latest form and achieved yet another more perfect disunion between the people and the franchise.

That is, at least, how it feels watching Florida native Billy Corben’s latest documentary, 537 Votes.

I never left. Physically at least. Like a lot of people, a short stay became permanent, a miscalculation of how easy it is to jump out when you’re standing in a swamp. Like Al Gore, I expected to be long gone from Florida by the end of 2000.

Earlier in the year, I’d watched the crisis unfold over a boy named Elián Gonzáles, whose mother died in their attempt to flee Cuba, whose father remained on the island and demanded his return, which his family in Miami bitterly opposed. Or I’d seen a version of it, muted both by the self-absorption of college and by native-born Cuban-American peers, for whom Cuba as a place and Cuba as a past were another country, not something that guided a life lived in this one. Even those who reflexively wanted him to stay in the United States struggled to reconcile that with spending the preceding decade watching the nation repatriate every Haitian in sight with all the solemnity of the Adam West Batman sprinting through the streets trying to dispose of a spherical black bomb with a wick the size of a Twizzler throwing festive Fourth of July sparks in its wake. Before 20 years of increasingly ostentatious GOP corruption, it was easier for people to sigh and concede that we live in a society of laws without feeling like a Comeyesque herb about it.

I watched the election and then The Recount and then the gradual synonymization of a state and a punchline from a Sarasota bar where the drinks were dirt cheap but the extra cost was made up by having to deal with a bartender who was thoroughly politely racist. And then I spent the next two decades here, watching as journalists who knew better depicted Florida as a producer of uniquely stupid stories and uniquely stupid people, rather than a state with uniquely robust public records laws that made their jobs much easier; watching as people in one breath derided Florida as an inauthentic place because nobody is “from” there and in the next breath acted as if none of the stupid people here had been grown back home; watching as every dad in America reworked The One Florida Joke into its bluntest, dullest form. Although ultimately the joke is about democracy and civil society, so maybe it’s time to recalibrate who it’s actually on. 

My reflexive fondness for and defensiveness about Florida and the character of Florida—even while constantly struggling to redefine the latter as new waves of people change it—isn’t unique. Carl Hiaasen, the Pulitzer Prize–winning columnist for the Miami Herald, has wrestled with the subject over 15 novels and 34 years. And it’s a process that has undergirded South Florida boy Billy Corben’s documentaries, from 2006’s Cocaine Cowboys, about the Miami drug war, to 2015’s Dawg Fight, about a dubiously legal Miami-area bare-knuckle boxing federation. (I wound up covering the fed’s debut PPV, which, in true Florida form, was to be held on a boat in international waters, was canceled by the threat of hurricane, and ultimately was filmed in secret in a shipping warehouse.) 537 Votes makes explicit what Corben and all the other native Florida boys have always known about a state full of crooks and lunatics, half of whom were shipped here by the rest of y’all: This thing, this Florida thing with this misbegotten landmass, is a two-way street. The story we like to tell about 2000 is that Florida happened to the rest of America—not that America, as it can anywhere else, happened to us.

But this is still Florida we’re talking about, so apart from the two decades of trauma and the assault on Democracy, it’s still, you know, kind of funny, and it’s hard to think of the subject matter of 537 Votes out of the hands of someone like Corben and producer and longtime partner Alfred Spellman—who managed to make the institutional gutlessness and moral vacancy of Major League Baseball, the hubris of Alex Rodriguez, and the clumsily obvious avarice of hangers-on into Screwball, one of the funniest sports documentaries ever made.

Like Screwball, the background hum of 537 Votes is a delightedly appalled incredulity that any of this exists. Everything happening is nuts, but it’s a sui generis nuts, so it’s our nuts. The cretins of local talk radio are depicted in the same way that New York locals talk about Mike and the Mad Dog or Bostonians talked about Dennis and Callahan, with a kind of proprietary exhaustion for your own local metastatic growth on decent conversation. But while the latter pairs and their imitators grew to ruin only all sports-radio markets, the hermetic reality-distortion that defined the outraged Cuban-American talk radio community has been applied to the country as a whole by conservative media, eventually absorbing the White House. 

The film’s argument echoes the old Tip O’Neil saw that all politics is local, taken, in suitably Miami fashion, to a garish degree. With the right confluence of events, someone else’s local issue becomes the politics everyone else’s hangs on.

Corben and his interviewees argue that Al Gore’s election loss began in November 1999, when five-year-old Elián González was found floating in an inner tube a few miles off the Florida coast, his mother, her boyfriend, and a handful of others having died in a Gulf storm. Gore, prepared to campaign on the Clinton administration’s years of prosperity, was forced to distance himself from his president for personal reasons, and from his president and attorney general for Miami politics. Gore’s best bet to roll back some of the growing el voto castigo sentiment was a joint appearance with Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas, who no-showed. Penelas starts the movie as a proto-Clinton charismatic Cuban Democrat and ends it an invertebrate series of aspirational gestures powered by unctuousness. 

But what begins as a local color documentary switches gears midway through and becomes a process documentary. After all, almost everyone in America has some idea of what happened, but here is how. 

If you want to wallow in nostalgia—the same sort of nostalgia that leads people to watch ads from their childhood on YouTube, a nostalgia for things that were there, regardless of quality—there are plenty of details to trigger your lizard brain like a long-ago jingle. Here’s the f%#!!!!  butterfly ballot again, here’s the hanging chad, the dimpled chad, the bubble chad, and the pregnant chad. Here’s a supercut of Dan Ratherisms. Here’s Tim Russert writing stupid shit on a whiteboard—but with the gravitas that comes from the Dean of Political TV writing stupid shit on a whiteboard. Here’s Pat Buchanan, incredulously described by a thinner and floppier-haired Jon Stewart as “the voice of fairness and reason,” as Buchanan publicly disavows huge numbers of potential votes by acknowledging that ballots with punches by his name and Gore’s name obviously belong to Gore.

It’s easy to get lost in the few things that ceased since then and miss all the elements that never left. It’s distracting to realize—after over a decade of every news set looking like glass, steel, and more glass, like an ad where they roll a ball bearing down the hood of a Mercedes to suggest its precision craftsmanship—that both major networks and The Daily Show thought that the cutting edge of news exactitude was wooden. It looks like they’re in an upscale rec room, but that’s not the point. The point is electoral theft.

It’s the process of stealing an election that narrows focus on the agonizingly familiar. Jesse Jackson wants to take to the streets—recognizing that activism puts pressure on courts and public opinion—but Gore waves him off, fearing violence, and the Democrats cede the entire ground to the GOP. There’s former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, already looking like he’s canvassing two houses down the block from Death’s door, projecting an image of procedural rectitude. We learn that he allegedly instructed the Democrats’ election team, “We will conduct ourselves on our side of the ledger as if this is the world’s greatest democracy.”

To that, South Florida resident and career ratfucker Roger Stone has a rejoinder: “Politics is about winning.”

Production on 537 Votes continued almost until the last minute, and like any other project pressed for time, it missed a few things. Since the film is meant as much for people who are too young to remember its subject as it is for people who’ve felt trapped for two decades by the outcome, it could have used a minute or two of context about how 537 votes in one county became so critical. That small number becomes so mesmeric that we forget all the larger ones that sent us here: the number of people purged from the voter rolls by Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris (58,000); the number of people likely inaccurately kicked off the voter rolls (12,000); and, given the demographics of how voters broke for the candidates, the number of Black votes that likely would have gone for Gore (over 4,700). 

The film’s end, too, feels a bit like yanking a car onto a highway off-ramp. The playfulness and the scabrousness are gone, and we see a litany of the horrors of the last 20 years, each scuttling out from under the robes of the judges who determined this election. It’s not a surprising tone for a project that Corben said he and Spellman began as a brainstorming session for cold-calling and canvassing for 2020. It’s a lesson about the consequences of disengagement, and a plea, but it comes by it honestly: How could you not do something, after all you saw? 

Seeing is important. Because the pile of 20 years of shitty jokes and metatextual garbage that rendered this recount as mostly a series of half-remembered late-night smirks obscured that these things happened, they still happen, and they’re ugly when they happen. The Brooks Brothers riot—when a bunch of paid GOP congressional staffers and campaign workers and future Bush administration employees barged into the building and began banging on the doors and windows of the recount offices, posing as local activists who just wanted their votes counted—has long since passed into deracinated canned pundit lore, but it’s very different watching it happen. It leaves rhetoric behind and returns to what it always was: targeted rage.

Take off the expensive ties, and these were just a mob of white people, intimidating public servants with victimized whining outrage that they were not entitled to yet another portion of the world, chanting to make sure that voters in an ethnically diverse county didn’t count. Add a tiki torch and replace “the whole world is watching” with chants of “Jews will not replace us,” and you don’t even have to change the actors. Just in case that starts to seem like a stretch, and you’ve forgotten the lanyarded cross-pollination between GOP media and think tanks and the alt-right, there’s Roger Stone on the screen again. Good ol’ Rog, the guy who goes out in public now surrounded by a violent white nationalist street gang that attended the rally where that second chant happened. 

At times, watching 527 Votes is like gazing at the picture of the Overlook Hotel’s July 4, 1921, ball and seeing a picture of yourself there. The inexorability of this familiar story and the unjust timelessness of so many elements of it are only reinforced by the connective tissue that brings us from 2000 to the present, and in fact you could go crazy trying to reconcile analogs between now and then. (After all, the GOP begins the film grandstanding about its refusal to deport a nonwhite child to what it probably considers a shithole country.) But if you take away one thing from the film, it seems that Corben would like it to be Armando Gutierrez.

Local fixer, possible extortionist, the guy who made sure the right people lined up for the right local judgeships—there’s no reason for you to know Armando Gutierrez. And maybe Corben and Spellman are right to suggest that he pushed a button, and an Elián González ruling happened a certain way. Maybe he pushed a button, and suddenly the Miami-Dade recount stopped. That’s their story to tell.

But it’s not a foreign one. Florida isn’t someplace else. It wasn’t a foreign territory that imposed itself on the U.S. in 2000. For 2.7 million Americans, it’s the backyard. Maybe some of them have their own demented talk radio stoking different fits of mass hysteria over different falsified realities, but that’s home. When an election gets stolen, when it happens to you, it happens at home, right there where you are.