The Recount

It will come as no surprise to readers of The Dubya Report that a statewide recount of ballots cast in the 2000 presidential election, using what a majority of Florida counties said they would use as a standard of voter intent, would have given Al Gore a majority. This is one of the conclusions reached by the massive analysis of Florida ballots conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University Chicago. The study, whose results were released November 11, was funded by a consortium of U.S. news organizations including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and Tribune Publishing which owns the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, and several newspapers in Florida. The release of the study's results, available since early September, was delayed at the request of the consortium following the September 11 terrorist attacks, according to an NORC staffer. With few exceptions the mainstream news media reported the results as if they demonstrated that the Supreme Court's unprecedented intervention into the electoral process, which awarded Bush the presidency, merely validated the will of the Florida voters. The New York Times announced the results with the headline, "Study of Disputed Florida Ballots Finds Justices Did Not Cast the Deciding Vote." While true in the narrow sense that the limited recount that was interrupted by the Supreme Court would, according the the NORC, have awarded a majority of votes to Bush, these conclusions suffer from the fallacy of questionable cause. They ignore the chain of events that that led to Bush v. Gore coming before the Supreme Court in the first place. They also ignore the fact that the court decision ensured that "further legal challenges [would] not again change the trajectory of the battle." Florida Circuit Judge Terry Lewis, under whose auspices the recount was taking place, told the Orlando Sentinel that, had the recount gone forward, he might have ordered all counties to count overvotes. The NORC study demonstrated that under that scenario, and four others, Gore would have won.

The Gore team's consistent mantra was to "count every vote." Gore's lawyers concluded that they were unlikely under Florida law to succeed in suing for a statewide recount. Gore advisors were also concerned, at the time, to avoid being seen as trying to circumvent democracy through the courts. So rather than go to court about it, Gore proposed a full recount to Bush, who immediately rejected it. Had the full statewide recount that Gore advocated taken place, Gore would have won, according to the NORC. "If all the ballots had been reviewed under any of seven single standards, and combined with the results of an examination of overvotes, Mr. Gore would have won ...," the Times said.

Another area in which concern for public relations prevented the Gore team from pursuing what would have been a fruitful strategy concerns absentee ballots. As noted in Jake Tapper's Down & Dirty, Republican operatives executed a concerted plan to encourage the filing of absentee ballots by likely Republican voters, even if they arrived after the legal deadline. This was confirmed by a New York Times study published in July, which found 680 absentee ballots arriving after Election Day were counted, in violation of Florida state law. Operating inside Katherine Harris's offices, Republican consultants developed detailed instructions for county canvassing boards that would ensure that the greatest number of absentee ballots likely to favor Bush were accepted. Bush campaign officials in Washington enlisted the help of the Pentagon in expediting collection and delivery of military ballots. Republicans on the House Armed Services committee helped the campaign obtain private contact information for voters in the military.

The earlier Times investigation found that the absentee ballots were "were judged by markedly different standards, depending on where they were counted." This was in conflict with statements by the Bush campaign and Florida secretary of state Katherine Harris that uniform standards should be applied, and not changed in the middle of the contest. It also runs counter to the equal-protection guarantee cited by the Supreme Court when it stopped the statewide manual recount.

In predominantly Republican counties Bush lawyers urged officials to ignore Florida election rules, particularly those requiring that ballots be postmarked by Election Day. They made speeches deriding Gore lawyers for suggesting voter fraud, while reminding listeners of the right of military men and women to vote. Fred Tarrant, a Republican City Council member from Naples, Fla., told the Collier County canvassing board "If they catch a bullet, or fragment from a terrorist bomb, that fragment does not have any postmark or registration of any kind." In Santa Rosa county a Bush lawyer told the canvassing board that they faced prosecution and jail time if they rejected overseas ballots. Judge Anne Kaylor, chair of the Polk County canvassing board acknowledged that the pressure tactics worked, and that invalid ballots were counted. "Technically, they were not supposed to be accepted. Any canvassing board that says they weren't under pressure is being less than candid."

Meanwhile, in predominantly Democratic areas, Bush lawyers objected to the slightest flaws, including incomplete addresses, and signatures that were illegible or varied slightly from voter rolls.

The NORC study determined that if all counties had adhered to Florida election law when accepting absentee ballots, Gore would have picked up 290 additional votes -- enough to win under some scenarios. The Gore team chose not to challenge absentee ballots, many of which were from members of the military, because "Mr. Gore did not want to be accused of seeking to invalidate votes of men and women in uniform."

An election correction

Nov 15th 2001
From The Economist print edition

In the issues of December 16th 2000 to November 10th 2001, we may have given the impression that George Bush had been legally and duly elected president of the United States. We now understand that this may have been incorrect, and that the election result is still too close to call. The Economist apologises for any inconvenience.

The NORC analysis lends weight to earlier complaints by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission that the voting system in Florida discriminates against blacks. In predominantly black election districts nearly 10 percent of votes were rejected, compared to 2 percent for whites and 4 percent for Hispanics. (In some precincts the Hispanic vote is not reported as a separate group.) Philip Klinkner, a political science professor at Hamilton College who reviewed a study by the Times said, "The finding about black voters is really strong. It raises the issue about whether there's some way that the voting system is set up that discriminates against blacks." Alan J. Lichtman, a political science professor at American University who contributed to the Civil Rights Commission study, said, "It suggests there was not just a disparate effect, but disparate treatment — not necessarily deliberate — of black voters in the election."

A Gallup poll conducted November 6, 2001 showed that 47% of the public believe Bush either stole the election or won it on a technicality. This is essentially unchanged from the results of a poll taken in July. One of the few positive aspects of the NORC report is that Gore would have won under vote counting rules that Florida and other states are now adopting -- rules which mandate recording the intentions of as many voters as possible. Democratic observers have pointed out that, even if Gore's legal team had persuaded the Supreme Court to allow a statewide recount (unlikely given the conservative and Republican bias of the court), and even if he had won the recount, the Florida Legislature was poised to appoint a Republican slate of electors, guaranteeing a Bush win. Disputes over the slate of electors would have been resolved in Congress, which at the time had a Republican majority in the Senate and the House, or as Bob Fertik of wrote. "the same folks whose unlimited partisanship led them to focus the nation's attention on Bill Clinton's sex life, while Osama Bin Laden was preparing his deadly attack on America."


"Exposing the Flaws -- The Final Report" 12 Nov. 2001

Boehlert, Eric "Why did the media delay its Florida recount study?" 5 Oct. 2001

Mcmanus, Doyle, Bob Drogin and Richard O'reilly "Bush Still Had Votes to Win in a Recount, Study Finds" LA Times 12 Nov. 2001

Fessenden, Ford and John M. Broder "Study of Disputed Florida Ballots Finds Justices Did Not Cast the Deciding Vote" NY Times 12 Nov. 2001

Fertik, Bob "Recount Spin" 12 Nov. 2001

Barstow, David And Don Van Natta "How Bush Took Florida: Mining the Overseas Absentee Vote" 15 Jul. 2001