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Bush-Gore race put Utah electors in spotlight in 2000

SALT LAKE CITY — Electoral College members typically cast their votes in obscurity unless some unusual circumstances arise in the presidential election.

The George W. Bush-Al Gore race in 2000 was one of those years.

It was the closest race in U.S. history. It was the rare occasion when the eventual winner lost the popular vote. It was weeks of recounts and dimpled chads in Florida. It took the U.S. Supreme Court stepping in to end the uncertainty just days before electors were to convene around the country.

Republican Ron Fox was one of Utah's five electors at that time. He received a letter from Bush campaign strategist Karl Rove after the Supreme Court decision and Gore's concession speech, warning of possible shenanigans.

"… We must expect the unexpected. And even though Vice President Gore was gracious in his remarks last night, there is always a chance that some disaffected group may try to disrupt the Electoral College process next week," Rove wrote.

The presidential scrum made minor celebrities out of Utah's five GOP electors who were committed to Bush. Major news organizations interviewed them about whether the Gore campaign has contacted them or if they had a notion to change their votes.

Fox didn't hear directly from the Gore campaign, he said, but received telephone calls, letters and emails from people urging him to switch his vote.

"I was getting a sizeable amount of pressure," the North Salt Lake resident said. "I never received a threat, per se. But it was an uncomfortable feeling."

Fox, who served as Bush's Utah campaign director, said he never thought about voting for anyone but the Republican Texas governor. He sill has the pen he used to sign the ballot.

Instead of quietly meeting in a room at the state Capitol that year, Utah's electors conducted business in the rotunda because of the extraordinary interest.

Hundreds of people, including several high school classes, showed up to witness the traditionally obscure event. The electors themselves invited family and friends. Some people attended because the presidential hoopla piqued their interest.

"It was a pretty gosh darn big thing," Fox said.

The five Republican electors did what they were bound to do under state law and voted for Bush, who had easily carried Utah. Bush ended up with 271 electoral votes, just one more than required to win the presidency.

Local Democrats haven't participated in the Electoral College since 1964 when Lyndon B. Johnson won Utah.

Fox was invited to a joint session of Congress to watch the counting of electoral votes. He still has his ticket for the visitor's gallery in the U.S. House of Representatives.

As vice president, Gore oversaw the opening of each state's ballot and had to call his own loss. Gore was very businesslike, though it obviously wasn't comfortable for him, Fox said.

"Gore was actually quite a gentleman," he said. "At the end, he faithfully announced the final tally and walked off into history."