The truth is out there–perhaps. During the postelection turmoil in Florida, Al Gore advocates prophesied that after the inauguration, journalists would descend on the disputed ballots and discover that Gore had undeniably bested George W. Bush. Well, it’s not going to be that easy. Various reviews have been launched, and the results are unlikely to settle the matter. The Miami Herald recently reported that its inspection of 10,644 undervote ballots in Miami-Dade County–ballots that didn’t register a presidential preference–netted Gore only forty-nine extra votes, not enough to change the election outcome. The newspaper’s numbers jibed with my own. In January I examined one-third of these ballots (see “In the Field of Chads,” January 29) and found a Gore gain of about fifteen votes. (An examination of Miami-Dade undervotes by the Palm Beach Post yielded a Bush pickup of six votes.)
Republicans heartily embraced the Herald‘s finding. Mark Wallace, a Miami attorney for the GOP, declared, “President Bush was lawfully elected on Election Day…. Now, after a ballot review, using liberal standards unprecedented under the law, we find President Bush would still win.” And the editorialists of the Wall Street Journal opined, “No matter how you total the votes in all four of the disputed counties that Mr. Gore sued to have recounted, George W. Bush emerges the winner.” Case closed? Not exactly.
The answer to Who Really Won Florida? depends on what’s counted. And that’s open to argument. When the Florida presidential election ended in a virtual tie, Gore and his advisers limited their recount request to the undervote ballots in four counties–Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and Volusia. Team Gore wanted to appear reasonable (hey, we’re not asking for a statewide recount), and it chose–duh–areas that leaned Democratic. The Miami Herald noted that if Gore’s forty-nine new votes in Miami-Dade (which did not complete the recount it started) were added to the official recount results from the three other counties, Gore still would have fallen 140 votes short of a win. But the story doesn’t end there. A Palm Beach Post analysis of disputed ballots in its home county concluded that Gore would have snagged an additional 682 votes had recounters there considered dimpled ballots. This would have put Gore over the top. Now case closed? Alas, no. The Post reviewed only undervote ballots challenged during the postelection hand recount. Since Democrats were then claiming that dimpled ballots should be tallied and Republicans were claiming the opposite, Republicans didn’t object as often when the canvassing board ruled a dimpled ballot a nonvote. Consequently that group of ballots, the Post acknowledged, “carried a heavy Democratic tilt.”
Squeezing an exact number out of these four counties is no breeze. There’s the issue of standards. Different reviewers can come up with different results. Still, contrary to GOP spin, it’s not at all tough to compose reasonable guidelines for ballot inspection. But should after-the-fact reviews be limited to undervotes in these counties? Why not overvotes? Many voters selected a candidate and also wrote the candidate’s name on a write-in line. Such ballots were not counted, although the intent of the voter was obvious, doubly so–and state law does say that recounters can look for signs of intent. A Washington Post analysis of computerized records for 2.7 million votes in the eight largest counties in Florida found Gore “was by far most likely to be selected on invalid overvoted ballots, with his name punched as one of the choices on 46,000 of them. Bush, by comparison, was punched on 17,000.” A manual recount of these ballots most likely would have benefited Gore.
Moreover, postbattle reviews need not be restricted to the four counties Gore requested. The Florida State Supreme Court ordered a manual recount of undervotes throughout the state–a decision overturned by the US Supreme Court. If you want to know what might have occurred had five GOP-appointed Justices not smothered the recount, you have to scrutinize undervote ballots throughout the state. In Orange County, an Orlando Sentinel review unearthed a 203-vote gain for Gore among under- and overvotes. And a Sentinel review of 16,000 undervotes and overvotes in fifteen other counties–mostly Republican counties– turned up a further gain for Gore of 366 votes. But on the other hand–this is a dizzying exercise–the State Supreme Court recount order referred only to undervotes.
Other factors render a hard-and-fast accounting difficult. A Herald review indicates that more than 5,200 people who used the infamous butterfly ballot in Palm Beach selected both Gore and Pat Buchanan, nullifying their votes. Throw a portion of them into the Gore column, and Gore trounces Bush. But no official recount would have included such ballots. The Herald also reported that at least 3,000 illegal ballots were cast throughout the state–by felons, residents not properly registered and people who voted twice. There’s no way to ascertain whom they supported. Nor can there be an exact count of citizens who went to the polls and were wrongly turned away. In Miami-Dade, 1,700 ballots were punched in the place below the one corresponding to a presidential candidate–possibly the result of machine error. One academic study concluded that Gore was the intended choice on 316 more of these ballots than Bush. And during the initial mandatory recount, many counties did not run the ballots through the machines. Instead, they merely checked the arithmetic of their original count. By the way, Seminole County election officials recently discovered eighty-three ballots not read by the machines that contained clear presidential votes; Gore edged Bush out by thirteen in that batch. How do you sum all this up?
A consortium of major news outfits is conducting a statewide review of 180,000 under- and overvotes. The goal, though, is not to reach consensus but to amass data that consortium members can crunch as they see fit. Prepare for different conclusions–and different formulations. Will the fog ever lift? With most reviews producing results that trend in Gore’s favor, it appears clear that had this been a better-run contest–with better machines, better pollworkers and better voters (who carefully followed instructions)–Gore would have triumphed. But an incontrovertible and concrete final tally–the ultimate truth–is probably beyond reach. There are just too many ways to count the leftovers from this lousy election.