Almost Everything We Thought About the Florida Recount Is Wrong!

Political commentary and more.
Dec. 28 2000 4:15 AM

Almost Everything We Thought About the Florida Recount Is Wrong!

Can we forget about John Ashcroft and go back to the Florida recount for a moment? The press has long since left the theater, and the final credits have almost finished rolling, but there's another plot twist to the story. A pretty big one.

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I'm referring to the "press recount" conducted last week by the Orlando Sentinel in Lake County, a fairly small, 90,000-vote county in central Florida that George Bush carried by 15 percentage points.

You wouldn't expect a Lake County recount to reveal many new votes for either candidate. After all, the county uses the supposedly more accurate optical-scanning voting system, in which voters mark their ballots with a pencil--no chad-producing "punch cards." What's more, the 3,114 ballots examined by the  Sentinel were "overvotes"--ballots the optical scanning machines had rejected because they detected marks for more than one presidential candidate. If you followed the coverage of the recount, you know that overvotes were not a central focus of the Florida fight. Instead, the recount controversy centered on "undervotes"--ballots on which machines detected no presidential vote at all. It was undervotes that Gore was desperately trying to get manually counted and that the Florida Supreme Court had ordered counted before that count was stopped by the U.S. Supreme Court.

What could overvotes yield, anyway? If a ballot is marked for two candidates, it's irretrievably spoiled, right? True, some people--including Bush lawyers seeking to discredit an "undervote-only" recount--raised the possibility that some overvotes might be salvageable if, say, voters actually wrote "I want Bush" on their ballots. But this possibility seemed almost theoretical. "There's nothing in the record that suggests there are such votes," Gore attorney David Boies asserted confidently when asked about the possibility in oral argument before the U.S. Supreme Court.

We now know how wildly off-base Boies was.

We know because in Lake County the Sentinel examined 3,114 overvotes. And one-fifth of them contained exactly the "write-in mistake" that Boies had dismissed as nonexistent. More perversely, the majority (376) of these ballots were clear votes for ... Boies' client, Gore. "In each case, an oval next to his name was filled in with a pencil and the voter mistakenly filled in another oval next to a spot reserved for write-in candidates, writing in Gore's name or running mate Joe Lieberman's there as well," the Sentinel reports. Some 246 ballots contained the same Write-In Mistake, except that the voter both marked and wrote in "Bush." But, all told, Gore would have gained 130 votes in this one measly little county had its overvotes been manually tallied.

In retrospect, it seems glaringly obvious why voters would make the Write-In Mistake. If you're a first-time voter, after all, and you see a ballot that says "Mark your candidate" and then another line that says "Write-in," you might easily think that the latter phrase was instructing you to write in your candidate's name--just to be sure! Sort of like a check, where you write the dollar amount with numerals and then write it with letters as well. It's actually quite amazing--with all the talk of voter confusion, butterfly ballots, and the like--that nobody realized this simple mistake would be so common. Nobody until now, that is.

The Lake County numbers contain another stunning surprise, in that they dramatically validate what might be called the "Sloppy Dem Thesis"--the folk wisdom that says Democratic voters (being less experienced, or less well-educated, or less anal, or whatever) tend to make ballot errors more often than Republican voters. Lake County, remember, is a Republican county that Bush carried by a wide margin. Yet the recoverable ballot errors (at least the overvote errors) ran heavily in favor of Gore. (Even other, more problematic ballots that the Sentinel didn't count--such as when a voter attempted to erase one mark--"fell heavily in Gore's favor.") If Gore picked up votes on a recount in Lake County, where wouldn't he pick up votes?

The writer Murray Sayle once joked that there are only three real stories in journalism: 1) "Arrow points to defective part;" 2) "We name the guilty man;" and 3) "Everything you thought you knew about this subject is wrong." The Lake County story comes close to qualifying for the third category. Consider its apparent implications:

Gore was mistaken: Gore went for hand recounts in four Democratic counties rather than a broad statewide recount. He's been criticized for grabbing at a quick political advantage instead of taking a gamble and doing the "right thing." But it's now clear that the right thing wouldn't have been much of a gamble for him at all. If the Sloppy Dem Thesis is as correct as it was in Lake County, Gore would have gained votes all over the state, in pro-Bush counties as well as Democratic counties.