Anyone old enough to remember the 2000 presidential election probably shudders at the phrase "hanging chad." Referring to an incompletely punched paper ballot, the figure of speech became a main staple of news headlines and late-night TV monologues for months.
It all started in the state of Florida where it was reported that Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush had beat Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore by just 1,784 votes. Because the margin was so slim (0.01 percent), state law required an automatic machine recount, which shrunk Bush's lead to 327 votes. When the margin is that slim, Florida law allows candidates to request a manual recount, which is just what Gore did in the four counties that traditionally voted Democrat: Volusia, Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade [sources: Britannica, Justia].
The problem was, counties were given seven days to certify their election returns to the Secretary of State, and they were concerned they wouldn't make the deadline. Three counties missed the deadline entirely: Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade. Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris had required any counties who needed a later filing date to submit a written explanation of the circumstances. None of the counties' submissions met Harris's standards for an extension, so she went ahead and certified Bush as Florida's winner.
Fast forward a few weeks to when Gore's campaign obtained an order from the Florida Supreme Court for a statewide manual recount. The next day, on Dec. 9, in a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the manual recounts must halt, and agreed to hear oral arguments from both parties. On Dec. 11, both parties presented their cases, Bush's team arguing that the Florida Supreme Court exceeded its authority when it authorized the manual recount; Gore's team arguing the case had already been decided at the state level and was not a matter for the federal courts. The U.S. Supreme Court, in a 7-2 vote, overturned the Florida decision ruling that the Florida Supreme Court violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.
In the end, the justices ruled 5-4 on the entire matter — the majority arguing that the Florida Supreme Court's decision to hold a statewide recount created a new election law, something only the state legislator could do.
Writing for the five-justice majority, Antonin Scalia stated the votes that were ordered to be counted were not "legal votes," (those in which there is a "clear indication of the intent of the voter") so the recount would do irreparable harm to Bush and the integrity of the democratic process. The dissenters — RBG included — felt the real threat to the democratic process was not ordering a recount. Despite being flawed, they said, a recount should be allowed to proceed because no vote should have a deadline to be counted. One noteworthy aspect to Ginsburg's dissent: She ended it with "I dissent" rather than her traditional "I respectfully dissent" [source: Britannica].