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.