Looking back 20 years, it would be easy to watch footage from Michigan — where President Donald Trump’s supporters stood outside Detroit’s TCF Center chanting “Stop the count!” — or Arizona — where Trump’s Republican voters and supporters, including Rep. Paul A. Gosar (Ariz.), showed up at the Maricopa County election headquarters in Phoenix, a few armed, chanting “Count the votes!” — and conflate those images with the fight over the 2000 Florida recount. At a glance, it might seem like a reprise of the “Brooks Brothers riot,” where an assortment of out-of-town Republican staffers shouted down the manual ballot recount in Miami-Dade County that followed the contentious 2000 presidential election.
But they’re not the same. I was there: Then, we fought to make sure every vote counted. Today’s protesters, whether they’re chanting to stop or start, are trying to thwart the effort to make sure that all legally cast votes are accurately counted.
I was part of a large group of Republican congressional staffers recruited to go to Florida to observe the recount. For several days, our team spent hours upon hours a day, broken into morning and afternoon shifts, on the 18th floor of Miami’s Stephen F. Clark Government Center, watching as hole-punch ballots were counted by hand, noting which ones were “over-votes” — where more than one presidential candidate may have been chosen — or “under-votes” — where no candidate was clearly chosen — or ballots where there were indentations, but not a clear hole punched, leading observers and election officials to argue over voters’ intent and the meaning of now-famous “hanging chads.” Occasionally, a vote, or potential vote, would be challenged. Those would be moved to a separate pile to be examined, with close inspection using, in some instances, a magnifying glass. It was tedious, but we were motivated by the prospect of electing a Republican president after eight years of a Democratic administration.
On the morning of Nov. 22, 2000, however, counting had moved to the 19th floor. But instead of the recount of several hundred thousand ballots, the county canvassing board decided only to look at a much smaller subsection of votes; votes, my team was told, which came from precincts likely to benefit the Democratic candidate, Vice President Al Gore. Worse, we were told, this count would happen behind closed doors. No election observers or media allowed.
I didn’t fully know what to expect as I took the elevator up. By the time the elevator stopped at the 18th floor, it was clear something big was happening one floor up. As the doors opened on the 19th floor, there was loud chanting by energized, largely-GOP staffers, many of whom, it’s true, were outfitted in the Brooks Brothers attire popular at the time. They were fired up, and rowdy, but not violent.
“Let us in!” chanted the crowd that had been shut out. But that soon became “Let them in! Let them in!” — with “them” being the media present who were also shut out from covering the ongoing recount. I recall one colleague pulling down a poster with a phone number for a voter fraud hotline, waving it and shouting, “Call now! Call now!” Eventually, the canvassing board threw in the towel — there would be no partial recount, nor any count hidden from the public.
“Count every vote!” became a mantra for our Miami recount team, which, after the Brooks Brothers riot, went to Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, where “Count Every Vote” and “Sore-Loserman 2000” T-shirts were worn.
Then, and now, the protesters were Republicans. I believed, and still do, that back then, we were right. We wanted a full and fair recount, in broad daylight, for all to observe. As much as the Brooks Brothers crew was maligned as preppy thugs, we demanded the same thing that today’s Democratic candidate, former vice president Joe Biden, wants. That’s a far cry from what my Republican brethren now want — to shut down the careful counting of legally cast votes, many of them absentee and military votes, afraid of the result.
Wednesday, Biden said: “Now, every vote must be counted. No one’s going to take our democracy away from us, not now, not ever.” He was urging that the proper vote-tallying process go forward, both to help his campaign and to make sure that every citizen’s ballot is counted. And, bizarre as it seems to say, two decades later, that’s what we wanted, as well: Every vote should count. Not just some. Not just those from locales that lean toward a certain candidate. And that ending the counting before those votes had been cast would be un-American.
Just look at Trump’s Twitter timeline. That he’s clinging to any argument he can conjure to challenge vote-counting is a sign that he knows the votes are probably there to send him home after one term. Egged on by the president, his camp’s willingness to delegitimize our electoral process, at a time when America’s standing in the world — and the confidence that we sincerely stand for what we say we believe — has been called into question, is letting down our allies, and ourselves, and comforting our adversaries. The only thing to do here is what Americans should always do: count every vote.
Douglas Heye is a former Republican National Committee communications director and was deputy chief of staff to former House majority leader Eric Cantor.