This is going to be yet one more article on the never-ending recount-a-rama in Florida. But first a flashback to a pre-Election Day campaign moment: It’s October. George W. Bush is barnstorming through Wisconsin. At his side is Republican Governor Tommy Thompson. In an auditorium in La Crosse, the Gov is firing up an enthusiastic crowd of several thousand. Riffing on a major Republican talking point, he pokes fun at Al Gore for being a whatever-it-takes truth-stretcher. Laughing, Thompson declares that someone ought to send Gore a copy of All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, Robert Fulghum’s platitudinous bestseller that details fourteen simple rules to live by (“share everything,” “don’t hit people,” “clean up your own mess,” etc.). The audience howls at the line and then roars when Bush hits the stage.
The sixth rule in Fulghum’s roster is “don’t take things that aren’t yours.” And that should be kept in mind when the ugly Florida election is considered. But not necessarily because Gore would have won a recount. Let’s look at that before returning to Fulghum.
The latest round in the recount-wrestle was declared a victory by the Bushies, for the Miami Herald, after conducting a statewide review of 64,248 undervotes (ballots that did not register a presidential preference when zipped through vote-counting machines), concluded that Bush “almost certainly” would have won had the US Supreme Court permitted the recount to go forward. The newspaper’s headline blared, “Review Shows Ballots Say Bush.” Vice President Dick Cheney, for one, embraced the finding, saying, “I think it’s been resolved…. We won Election Night. We won the recounts. We won the manual recounts…. We ought to get on with our business.”
The Herald‘s report, though, is not going to be the last word in a dispute that probably will never yield a last word. The newspaper found Bush would have placed first by 1,665 votes had the reviewers used a liberal standard that tallied dimpled, pinpricked and hanging chads–a standard the Gore camp had advocated. Under the most restrictive standard–which the GOP had fancied–Gore would have ended up vanquishing Bush by three votes–that is, by 0.00005 percent. Even as the headline favored Bush, data in the story was used by Democratic partisans to argue their case. For instance, the paper reported that if county canvassing boards throughout the state had followed a 1998 state Supreme Court ruling–which said that these boards must examine for voter intent those ballots that cannot be read by a scanner–“Gore might have won…by 393 votes,” assuming these counters had employed the most inclusive standard. (The difference between the Bush-win-by-1,665 and the Gore-win-by-393 findings arises because the latter included ballot reviews in counties not covered by the state Supreme Court recount order, which had exempted counties that had already conducted full or partial recounts.) But traditionally, counties have not followed that 1998 ruling, which arguably would require election workers in some counties to vet tens of thousands of ballots after each election–a process that would take weeks or months.
The Herald‘s review–run by a public accounting firm and mounted jointly with USA Today–demonstrated that in a contest so large (5.9 million votes) and so close, the battle over a standard will determine the result. This has caused some Bush backers to say smugly, see, we told you that you could not have an accurate recount. What they ignore is that all vote-counting occurs under one standard or another. Punch-card voting machines can kick out up to 4 percent of ballots as unreadable, while optical-scanners typically read more than 99 percent of the ballots. That’s a built-in standard that can affect a race–especially if the different machines are disproportionately dispersed.