Nov. 21 2000 6:06 PM

Is this presidential election the closest popular vote contest in U.S. history?

No, but it's in the top three. Since the size of the voting population grows with each election, it's fairer to compare the percentage of difference in popular vote between the two top candidates rather than the actual number of votes that separated them. The closest election was in 1880 between James Garfield and Winfield Hancock. Garfield got 4,446,158 votes and Hancock 4,444,260--which gave both a 48.3 percentage of the vote. (The rest went to a third party candidate.) The 1,898-vote margin of victory was less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the votes cast. In 1960 John F. Kennedy bested Richard Nixon by a two-tenth of 1 percent margin or 118,574 votes. Kennedy's final tally, 34,226,731, was 49.7 percent of the vote, and Nixon's 34,108,157 was 49.5 percent. This year the final numbers aren't in, may never be in; can we ever look at final, precise tallies with the same sense of confidence again? But so far about two-tenths of 1 percent of the votes cast separates the candidates, with Gore leading Bush by, to date, 200,690 votes. Tallies so far show Gore received 49,858,201 votes and Bush 49,657,511.

How is the order of the names of the presidential candidates on a ballot decided?

It varies by state. In Florida (as well as Texas), it's decided by how well each party did in the last gubernatorial election. So George Bush got the top slot in those two states because his brother and he won their respective governor's races. Al Gore was No. 2 on each ballot. Which raises the question (again) of Palm Beach's infamous butterfly ballot. While Gore was listed second under Bush, the second punch hole was for Buchanan on the opposite side of the page. Let's litigate! California uses a completely different method. They draw a random alphabet and assign position based on where the candidates' names appear in this new order. For example, if they drew D, G, C, B, etc., Gore would appear first on the ballot and Bush second. For candidates whose last names start with the same letter, they go to the second or third letter in the name to decide. Then, to be scrupulously fair, the order of the candidates' names are rotated within each assembly district so no candidate has the top slot throughout the state. (OK, the butterfly does sound simpler.)

Explainer, in another FAQyou listed the various methods Americans used to vote in the last presidential election, which, as a reader pointed out, only added up to 92 percent. You promised not to rest until you solved the mystery of the missing 8 percent. Do you deserve a rest now?

Yes. Explainer's previous information was from the Federal Election Commission. Feh to the FEC! To the rescue comes Election Data Services (www.electiondataservices.com). They have a chart from the 1998 election that shows what methods Americans used to vote that adds up to 100 percent. (Actually it adds up to 100.01 percent. Don't come crying to me. These are election numbers we're talking about here. Do you expect everything to be perfect?) Here goes: 38.76 percent used some type of optical scanning equipment that requires voters to mark a bubble as with standardized tests; 18.41 percent used punch cards; 15.29 percent used lever machines; 13.06 percent used paper ballots; 8.18 percent used electronic systems--that is, some type of computer touch screen; 4.49 percent had to use more than one type of system (oy, the confusion!); and 1.82 percent used Data Vote, a type of punch-card system that requires a different card for each race. (Don't even talk about it!!)

Explainer thanks Peter Nardulli of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; June Condron of the Orange County Elections Office, Orange County, Fla.; Tony Sirvello of the County Clerk's Office, Harris County, Texas; and Ernest Hawkins of the National Association of County Recorders, Election Officials, and Clerks.

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