'My strongest memory is chaos': A look back at election night 2000

At the time, election night 2000 was a night unlike any other.
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/ Source: TODAY

TODAY anchor Katie Couric’s first words said it all on the morning of Nov. 8, 2000, when she opened the show on the day after the presidential election.

“Good morning. We do not have a winner.”

Americans were waking up to find out that it had yet to be determined whether Al Gore or George W. Bush would be the 43rd president of the United States after a night of chaos in which all the major networks projected Gore the winner, then Bush, and then no one.

Election night began a 35-day saga that introduced Americans to the ballot-related term “hanging chad” during a recount in Florida and ended with the U.S. Supreme Court declaring Bush the victor by a 5-4 vote in one of the closest and most controversial elections in U.S. history.

Twenty years later, experts have warned that the country may once again wake up the morning after Election Day in November and not know the winner between President Donald Trump and challenger Joe Biden thanks to mail-in voting, the effects of the pandemic on the election, and a close electoral race.

The whiplash of election night in 2000 still sticks in the minds of many who were part of NBC News’ broadcast, and its lessons reverberate to this day.

NBC News covered the ups and downs that night — with “NBC Nightly News” anchor Tom Brokaw and NBC News Washington bureau chief and moderator of "Meet the Press" Tim Russert at the helm from 7 p.m. EST Tuesday evening all the way until 5 a.m. Wednesday morning.

TODAY spoke with six of the principal figures who were involved in the broadcast that night to get their memories of a historic event that was unprecedented in a modern U.S. election.

Calm Before The Storm

John Lapinski (Current head of NBC News' Decision Desk and a junior analyst on the desk in 2000): We prepare a year out for the election and have dozens of people, but back in the day there weren’t a lot of close elections. 2000 started a new trend where we’ve seen tons of almost tied elections. People weren’t prepared for what happened if it was a tie, and I don’t think people expected that in 2000.

Betsy Fischer Martin (Former executive producer of “Meet the Press” who worked with Tim Russert for 17 years): I don't think any of us knew that it was going to be a razor-thin margin or that we were going to screw up the calls. After living through (Bill Clinton’s) impeachment (in 1998), I think people were just happy to cover an election story instead of a scandal.

Bill Wheatley (Former vice president in charge of news gathering and hard news programs at NBC): It was widely believed that the race was close and that no one necessarily knew what the outcome would be. I think there may have been a little more thought that Gore would win, but no one really knew.

The morning of the election night I was fretting because knowing it was likely to be close, we did not have a way to instantly display from where the candidates could get the votes they needed to put them to 270 (electoral votes) or higher. Nowadays this would all be done by computer.

There was no foreboding. Various systems for projecting winners had worked pretty well over the years, and we had some very accomplished statisticians and mathematicians in our employ who had done this several times before.

Tim Russert and Tom Brokaw anchored NBC News' special coverage of the 2000 election for ten hours.TODAY

Kerry Sanders (Veteran NBC News correspondent who was on the ground in Florida on election night): I had never heard of the word “chad” before that night.

I had never heard of the word “chad” before that night.

Kerry Sanders

Tom Brokaw (Anchor of “NBC Nightly News" from 1982-2004, who helmed special coverage that night): Going into the day, Tim (Russert) and I were talking about, we knew that Florida was going to be critically important, we knew that it was going to be very close there.

We also knew in the way that the country didn’t that there was a hell of a lot of manipulation going on from both sides. Everybody was trying to get an edge in some fashion. But our job was to tell the American people on a moment-to-moment basis, OK, here’s what we think we know, here’s why it’s the way it appears to be, but don’t hold your breath, we’ve got a long way to go.

Florida, Florida, Florida

It became clear early in the night that the swing state of Florida and its 25 electoral votes would most likely decide the election.

Russert famously scribbled on a dry-erase board, “Florida Florida Florida” in the early hours of Wednesday, which echoed a prediction he had made ahead of the election a few weeks earlier on TODAY, that it would all come down to the Sunshine State.

Tim Russert holds up his famous dry-erase board, proclaiming the importance of "Florida Florida Florida."TODAY

At the time, all of the major news organizations (NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox, CNN and The Associated Press) used a now-defunct group called Voter News Service for the exit polling data that was vital to calling a state for one candidate or the other, which would become a crucial part of the wild evening.

At 7:49 p.m. EST, NBC News' Decision Desk called Florida for Gore, which Brokaw relayed on air. NBC was the first network to project Gore as the winner of the state, followed shortly by ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox and the AP.

Wheatley: As a member of VNS, it had worked well. Historically there were almost no bad projections, and I trusted the people who ran it.

There hadn't been a lot of worries and then bam, as we're coming up to 8 o’clock, the computers are showing within margin of error that they are indicating a Gore win for Florida, which surprised people. We were the first to call it, and within 15 minutes everyone else had called it, too.

Martin: Looking at different scenarios, Tim had realized early on that it was going to come down to Florida. That was the big kahuna.

Tim's focus was to explain how a candidate was going to get to the number of (electoral) votes needed. The graphics just couldn't keep up with all the information coming in, so he went to the whiteboard.

He wanted the information immediately. There was no, "Oh, the graphics guy just needs to finish this." The notion of telling Tim, "We'll have that for you in three minutes" was just not gonna happen. It came down to, "Get me a board and a marker, and we're going to town here."

Looking at different scenarios, Tim had realized early on that it was going to come down to Florida. That was the big kahuna.

Betsy Fischer Martin

Something’s Not Right

As the evening progressed, it became apparent that VNS calling Florida for Gore was premature.

Lapinski: One of the big ones was that they typed in the numbers wrong. In Duval County they added an extra digit, so, like, instead of putting 4,302 votes they put in, like, 43,020. There was a number of different issues like that.

There were also problems with county officials putting out data we weren’t sure was right.

Sanders: I was in Broward County in Ft. Lauderdale at the election headquarters, which was kind of like a warehouse facility alongside the train tracks. While I was there, anomalies were beginning to show up, initially in Broward, before what was going on in Dade (County).

I called in to speak to Specials coverage, and even Brokaw got on the phone and said we need to be very cautious about how we report this because it may be an isolated anomaly. I went on the air with problems that were developing, and it was sort of the first crack in the story where we would soon learn there were incredible problems across the board.

Martin: It became a circular situation because now the candidates are looking to the networks to call the race, and then we're looking to the candidates to be like, "What the heck are you guys hearing?"

Wheatley: It wasn't until later, at least a half an hour, maybe longer, the Decision Desk called me and said there's something screwy in Florida, the data coming in is somewhat different than what we had before.

Later it turned out that VNS had typed in the wrong info on a county that had reported early. By about 10 p.m., VNS people were notifying all their clients that there was suspect information and they're trying to run it down. One of the networks then reversed its call and said they were putting Florida back in play.

"...Omelette All Over Our Suits"

At 9:55 p.m. EST, CNN retracted its projection of Gore as the winner of Florida, which was followed by all the major networks doing the same.

“What the networks giveth, the networks taketh away,” Brokaw said shortly thereafter in announcing NBC’s initial retraction of the state.

“I'll never listen to another person say, 'My vote doesn't count,’” Russert said after the retraction. “Look at that, 50 million Americans, and they're just a few votes apart.”

At 1:49 a.m., Brokaw noted that there was a winner of the election. It’s just that no one knew who it was.

“It’s also worth pointing out in fact, the decision has been made. The president of the United States has been chosen because all the polls have been closed, all the votes have been cast. They’re just sitting out there waiting to be counted, and so we’re sitting here waiting for the count to come in. But in fact, America has already decided at this hour who it wants as its next president of the United States. What we don’t know is if it’s George W. Bush down there in Austin, Texas, tonight working the telephones trying to find out what’s going on, or Vice President Al Gore in Nashville, Tennessee, doing the same thing.

At 2:16 a.m., Fox News projected Bush the winner, with NBC, CNN, ABC and CBS following minutes later.

“It would be something if the networks managed to blow it twice in one night,” Brokaw later said as the winner still hadn’t been made completely clear.

“Speak for yourself,” Russert said.

The Washington Post later reported that Gore called Bush around that time and retracted his concession, saying that “circumstances have changed dramatically since I first called you.”

By 4 a.m., NBC News and the other networks had retracted their call for Bush and decided not to project a winner because Florida was too close to call.

“The networks tonight, I think that it's fair to say, I think I indicated earlier, we don't just have egg in our face, we've got omelette all over our suits at this point and on our face and everywhere else,” Brokaw said on air. “We awarded Florida erroneously at one point, came back and managed to make everything equal by awarding it erroneously a second time.”

My strongest memory is chaos

Tom Brokaw

Wheatley: I said, "Oh, God." Not that I was angry at him — I wasn't — he was right. That sort of summed it up.

Of course that was very embarrassing. I felt my stomach sink. Jeff Greenfield at CNN had the famous line, "Oh, waiter, one order of crow, please."

Brokaw: My strongest memory is chaos.

It was really shortly after midnight that Tim and I looked at each other and it was whipsawing back and forth, who was ahead, where Florida was, what was gonna happen next, and that’s when at one point I (made the omelette comment).

Tom Brokaw was faced with the tricky task of reporting the back and forth of the election results all night long. "We don't just have egg in our face, we've got omelette all over our suits," he famously said toward the end of coverage.TODAY

Martin: You can imagine those guys are sitting at an anchor desk, and it's not their decision to make the call. They're being told in their ear. It’s super frustrating if you're Tom or you're Tim, having to take it back. It's embarrassing. They were not happy.

The culture was such at the time that being first was deemed to be a big thing. You've got the three big stations and if one station is saying they're calling it, you're being asked when you’re going to call it. There was this incentive to be first for ratings and eyeballs.

Tim called Shelly (Sheldon Gawiser, head of NBC News' Decision Desk). We had a batphone next to the anchor desk where he could pick up and dial out. He had a direct line to Sheldon and that phone line was going back and forth, and there was screaming back and forth.

Wheatley: At about 2 a.m., the data stream was showing that Bush had a substantial lead in Florida. Of course we're a little chastened, but he's got a pretty good lead there.

Shortly thereafter, Fox calls the election. I picked up the phone and called the Decision Desk and said, "Fox is projecting, what are you thinking?" And they said, "We're getting very close," and a couple of minutes later they said they could project (Bush as the winner). I was told later they would've made the same decision based on the data. You always wonder if another network calls it if it lightens the load on other networks.

Phil Alongi (Specials producer that night who had been covering elections since 1980): Meanwhile we’re getting information that Gore had already called Bush and conceded the election, and everybody's yelling in my direction and I'm saying (the two candidates) are not saying anything. Then the rumors started that Gore called Bush and said, "I'm not conceding."

When George Bush called Al Gore back, he said, "You can't change your mind, you've already conceded." Someone described it as a schoolyard fight, and we all lived that nightmare.

Wheatley: Then the damn lead is down to 15,000 (votes) and everybody's worried. Then we hear that Gore's limo on its way to its headquarters has pulled over and his brain trust is saying not to give the concession.

We hear that and we think, man, this is something. Everyone is scrambling to figure out what the hell is going on. It’s clear that there's a hiccup in there somewhere. Not only shouldn’t the election have been called, but it's almost certainly gonna end up in a recount because if it’s less than a 0.5% victory, it goes to automatic recount in Florida.

Brokaw: To the credit of the American people, they were not coming up over the fences after us. They were waiting to see if we could sort all this out. They knew that we were trying hard to get it right.

The Aftermath and Road Ahead

The long night on the air segued right into TODAY in the morning, where Couric, who had also been part of the coverage the previous night, delivered her famous line.

The networks' news divisions and the Associated Press later faced congressional hearings on how they incorrectly called the election, VNS ultimately went out of business in 2003, and news organizations made major changes to their data-gathering operations for subsequent elections.

Wheatley: The air had just come out of the control room. Just silence. People are so embarrassed. I went back to my office and I'm thinking America's gonna wake up hearing that the race isn't called and that there's a fiasco here.

Sanders: I would say that there are still people in Florida who wonder whether their vote is actually still being counted. The confidence that's been shaken remains today. The real question today is whether the system is compromised by outside influences. We do know that at least two county systems in the last go-round were infiltrated by Russians, per the FBI.

Alongi: It was a tremendous learning experience for all of us. Yes, we had to show up at the Hill and get slapped around by Congress, but no one intentionally did it. I always felt that NBC did the best job we all possibly could.

Brokaw: It’s so much different now because first of all the electronic, warp speed of the passage of information and the ability of people that you have no idea who they are, what their interests are, with a keystroke can change things, quickly. And we’re behind most of the time. There’s people out there who are wiring, if you will, the internet for their advantage, and that’s always been the case.

Lapinski: We had to go through and figure out what went wrong in 2000 and how we could improve our systems. We just invested a ton of effort and work on how to quality control the data. Now we have systems in place that if a number is typed in wrong, it’s flagged, or if numbers are way out of whack, we would immediately know it. There are many more guardrails to make sure to QC the data better, and we’ve invested a lot more in our team on the data analytics side.

Wheatley: One of the good things about broadcast news is that tomorrow is always another day.