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‘537 Votes’: How the Supreme Court and irate people in Miami picked a president

Brilliant HBO documentary puts the bizarre 2000 Bush-Gore election in the context of a city split by the Elián González case.

Election judges in Miami scrutinize a ballot during a manual recount on Nov. 14, 2000, a week after the presidential election.
Marta Lavandier/AP

The 2000 presidential election made for one wild and crazy night, with George W. Bush and Al Gore locked in a contest so tight Gore called Bush to concede — and then called him again to take it back, amidst the uncertainty surrounding the outcome in Florida. Even after Bush was declared the victor, the fight to recount the ballots in Florida went all the way to the Supreme Court, and it wasn’t until Dec. 13, 2000, that Gore officially conceded. It was madness.

Tens of millions of Americans have come of age since 2000 and are now eligible to vote. Most are too young to remember that election — and for those newer voters as well as those who bore witness to the birth of the hanging chad, the new HBO documentary “537 Votes” couldn’t be a more timely and insightful look at the confluence of events that led to arguably the craziest and most infuriating election in American history.

Director Billy Corben (“Cocaine Cowboys,” “Screwball”) aims his camera at Miami-Dade County, the white-hot center of the recount, and does a brilliant job of laying out the facts, providing invaluable background on late 20th century politics in the county — and adding some dark comedic touches. Corben recognizes this is serious business, but it’s also something of a non-fiction heist movie and a character study of some fascinating figures, including a onetime golden boy with a seemingly unlimited future who self-destructed.

With “Everybody Dance Now” by C+C Music Factory and then “I’m Too Sexy” by Right Said Fred setting the tone, “537 Votes” plunges us back in time to the go-go 1990s, the 2000 election and the stark contrasts between the policy-wonk, nearly robotic Al Gore and the folksy, loosey-goosey George W. Bush. In the home stretch, they were virtually tied in the polls, and it became clear Florida, and in particular Florida’s Hispanic population in Miami-Dade County, could very well swing the election.

Strangers reach out to touch 6-year-old Elián González as he stays at the Miami home of relatives on Jan. 9, 2000.
Alan Diaz/AP

Enter one Alex Penelas, the young, handsome, charismatic, popular Cuban-American executive mayor of Miami-Dade County. “The sky was the limit for him,” says one veteran political operative. We take a detour of sorts into the story of Elián González, the 5-year-old boy who was found in the waters off Miami on Thanksgiving 1999, having survived while his mother and other loved ones died. With Elián’s biological father in communist Cuba demanding the return of his son and his relatives in Miami vowing to fight to keep him in the States, the battle over Elián raged into the next year. Penelas made a stunning statement, saying, “We will not lend resources, [including] police officers, to assist the federal government in any way, shape or form.” Later that year, during the recount, Penelas literally disappeared from the public eye and was reportedly negotiating with Republicans for his own political survival rather than ensuring the ballot validation process went smoothly. That was the end of Alex Penelas.

This detour isn’t really a detour after all, as “537 Votes” makes the convincing case Hispanic resentment over the Clinton-Gore administration’s handling of Elián’s case led to a sizable “revenge vote” against Gore. Next thing you know, we’re hearing about “butterfly ballots” and “hanging chads,” with hand recounts taking place in three Miami counties (including, most importantly, Miami-Dade) and Bush filing a lawsuit to stop the recount, and it just got more bizarre from there.

Director Corben expertly weaves together talking-head interviews with reporters and political operatives (including, yes, Roger Stone), with archival TV news footage and some clever use of graphics, to chronicle every step, including the surreal moment when “protesters” (who actually were paid Republican operatives) stormed to the very doors of the recount room in Miami-Dade, demanding the process be shut down. It was shut down.

Cut to David Letterman doing his late-night monologue, saying, “By the way, Florida: Do us a favor, stay out of the next election,” and Jon Stewart pointing out Gore won the popular election by a margin of 539,947 votes, and Democratic political strategist and pollster Fernand Amandi lamenting, “The election was lost in many different places, but it was stolen in Miami.”

However we got there, George W. Bush won Florida by just those 537 votes. It’s impossible to know what the world would have been like had Gore won — but it’s also impossible to say it wouldn’t have been a very different place.