WASHINGTON — The ghosts of the 2000 Florida recount never left us. Consider Judge Amy Coney Barrett, who was one of the army of Republican lawyers deployed to Florida two decades ago. If confirmed to the Supreme Court, Coney Barrett will be the third member of the Bush 2000 legal team to join the high court after John Roberts and Brett Kavanaugh. Or note the words of a federal judge in Florida who earlier this month, in a ruling about Florida’s dysfunctional online voter registration system, wrote: “I feel like I’ve seen this movie before.”
The 2020 election has the potential to be Bush v. Gore on steroids. For those who need a refresher on the most infamous U.S. election in modern times, the documentary filmmaker Billy Corben has made just the movie for you. Corben’s new film, 537 Votes, is a rollicking, nostalgia-laden romp through the Florida 2000 debacle, sure to trigger anyone who still shudders at the mention of hanging chads and butterfly ballots, Elián González and Katherine Harris. It’s the furthest thing from a dry, soberly narrated Frontline special — Corben doesn’t hesitate to accuse the Bush team from outright stealing the presidential election, but he’s equally critical of the squishy Democrats, including Al Gore, for not taking to the streets to fight for a full recount in Florida.
Corben, a native Floridian, came to see the Florida recount as a harbinger for the chaos of 2020. “We are living in the post-apocalyptic world of the 2000 presidential election,” Corben tells Rolling Stone. “There is a fault line that splits and cracks with the decisions of the first election of the millennium. That sets the tone.” As best I could tell, 537 Votes doesn’t unearth any long-buried revelations about the Florida recount, but it does a bang-up job of transporting the viewer back to the democratic crisis that kicked off the 2000s, as well as making the case that the 2000 recount and Florida’s scorched-earth brand of politics set the stage for the 21st century.
And even though the movie doesn’t address the Covid-19 pandemic, it serves as a painful yet necessary reminder of how a contested election might play out in 2020 and the sorts of obscure government officials who could decide the Biden-Trump election if it drags out for days or weeks after Election Day. Corben spoke by phone with Rolling Stone about the documentary, which premiered Wednesday on HBO, and why he felt the 2000 election was worth revisiting.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Rolling Stone: I’m old enough to remember most of the recount debacle. Watching this movie was like reliving a nightmare. What made you want to revisit Florida 2000 now?
Billy Corben: [Co-producers] Alfred [Spellman] and David Cypkin and l were talking last summer about what we were going to do in the 2020 election cycle. We realized very quickly that it was the 20th anniversary of the Florida recount.
Our assistant at the time was born in 1990. We asked her what she remembered about it and she said, “Hanging chads? Was that a thing?” We said, “Yes, that was a thing.” But that was all. Those were the four corners of her memory on that. So we said, “How many Americans are eligible to vote in 2020 but were too young to remember that 537 votes in Florida affected the fate of the free world?” Something like 54 million Americans. That’s certainly enough to sway an entire election. We were like, “Shit, maybe this is a timely tale to tell.”
I describe this documentary as easy to watch and tough to digest. It’s a heist movie. It starts out a ’90s nostalgia piece. Britney Spears. Fresh Prince. The dawn of “Amazon, a place for books.” Right away, you get the endorphins going, the drug-like impact of nostalgia. But also an instant melancholy because the present is epilogue.
The present is epilogue — what do you mean by that?
We’re living the epilogue for this story. The Miami of today is the nation of tomorrow. [Journalist] Rick Sanchez says that in the end. It’s why Elian Gonzalez is the first act of the movie.
In Miami, we have for decades been held hostage by a small subset of the Cuban American community that is a vocal, fanatical, right-wing extremist faction, and they have dictated the political conversation. At first, the politicians were intimidated by them, then they realized they could manipulate them, because they were super-voters, and they were easy to manipulate. The Republicans realized they could weaponize the community with the c-word: communism.
What is that but the America of today? When we look to D.C. now, the U.S. is being governed and held hostage by a small fanatical group of extremists. That was the Miami of the ’90s, 2000s, and today. We are a blue county that Hillary won with 60 percent where almost every single mayor in the county, in the municipalities, is a Republican. It’s inexplicable but it’s intentional.
Miami is America’s canary in the coal mine. If you want to know what challenges we’ll face and what calamities will befall the country, look to South Florida. Calling counting ballots “fraud.” Disenfranchising African American voters. Labeling people communists and socialists. Again, I remember saying to [anti-Trump activist and Florida Republican consultant] Rick Wilson earlier this year: “Let me get this straight, Rick: It was OK when you did it in Tallahassee, but not OK when Trump does it now?”
What surprised you the most in going back and revisiting this episode?
I like to say that Florida rarely shocks me and often disappoints me. Still, there were some definitely surprises along the way. On social media, I’m always espousing and perpetuating the idea that local elections are important. What the president of the United States does takes so much longer to affect your regular life. Local officials are the ones that paint the roads.
You watch this movie and you realize there are all these local political grifters and self-interested politicians down here. These obscure people that don’t exist anywhere else in American politics now have their thumbs on the scale directly impacting the outcome of a national election. That’s a lesson for everybody: Who are your election supervisors? Who are the equivalent of the members of your local canvassing board?
I can imagine people on the Republican and Democratic side saying they didn’t want to revisit this nightmarish moment in our history. What did you say to be able to get them to cooperate? Why would Gore confidante Mitchell Berger want to relive all of this?
Mitchell Berger is a true surrogate for Al Gore. They’ve known each other for decades. I don’t know that, of all the people we interviewed, if there’s any one person whose life would look so completely different than it does now had that election had a different outcome. He could’ve been the attorney general. He could’ve been a senator from the state of Florida.
I think you see that, yes, in the moment, when we’re finally dredging this up, he does get some of that excitement back. When you see him looking down and looking away, he gets very pensive — this is like PTSD. This is a legitimate drama. This election was stolen right out from under them. He has these little reminders on the wall of his office. I feel like that’s on purpose. I think it’s clear he is fucking haunted by this.
Did any of the Gore campaign people wish they had taken a more aggressive approach? That they’d mounted their own Brooks Brothers riot like the Bush team did?
Not overtly. [Miami-Dade County Democratic Party chairman] Joe Geller was of course physically harassed. He was in the courts physically doing his best. Berger did not overtly say so, but I got that sense. The way [Berger] talks about Gore telling Jesse Jackson to stand down, [Berger] talking about Gore being a Boy Scout. He was definitely the dude who wanted to grab the pitchforks. I get the sense that every step of the way he was the lone voice in the room advocating for a more aggressive approach.
[Bush operative] Brad Blakeman said it: It’s the three-legged stool. You had to win in the courts, in the canvassing board recount rooms, and in the streets. Gore’s stool fell because he did not have the third leg. And everybody agreed on either side of the aisle that the recount in Miami-Dade being shut down was the beginning of the end. That was the moment. People we talked to off camera, they said, “Yeah, that was it.” That was the biggest bluest county.
The Supreme Court not only stopped the counting of legal ballots, but they actually told hundreds of people to pound sand and they threw out hundreds of ballots. The votes of those people — it’s worse than not counting the votes; they threw votes in the trash can effectively. That’s really the call to action here. Not only do you have to vote; it is so important to vote in an election this close. But you have to fight to have your vote counted.
One thing that struck me in the movie was how proud not just Roger Stone but Brad Blakeman were of their strategy in Florida, which at one point included using physical intimidation to shut down a democratic process. What do you make of their pride in a notorious, dark moment in American history?
I think Rick Sanchez said it best in the doc: While the Democrats were trying to do the right thing, the Republicans were trying to win.
I always say the Democrats never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. I’m mostly referring to 2000 when I say that, but I’m also referring to every fucking day of the last four years. The metaphor is that if you’re on the ground, and your opponent has one foot on your neck, and with the other foot they’re kicking you repeatedly in the stomach, and you’re on the ground waving the Constitution, you’re losing that argument. Again, lessons of the 2000 recount.
I asked Roger Stone, “Is politics about bringing people together?” He says [Stone voice], “Politics is about winning.” He didn’t skip a beat. Like I’m an idiot.
Having made this movie about 2000, what should we expect this year with the heightened potential for voting chaos on or after the election?
What’s the line? Close elections can be stolen. How many Miami-Dades could we have in this country? And so that means how many Floridas? Florida fuckery is our greatest export here in the state of Florida. There’s no telling how far and wide we could expert Florida fuckery circa 2000 to the rest of the country. There’s no telling the number of demonstrations or violence or the threat of violence and intimidation like the Brooks Brothers riot could occur not only in election divisions and canvassing boards, but at actual polling places when the president of the United States is trying to organize a force of poll watchers.
On the upside, voting has already begun. Election day is the last day of voting. But when they start counting and start announcing the results on election night, there’s no telling how long it will last. It nearly went to Christmas in 2000. Like I said, the documentary is easy to watch and tough to digest.