Election 2000: The Race Tightens Up!

Political commentary and more.
Jan. 28 2001 6:03 PM

Election 2000: The Race Tightens Up!

Kausfiles isn't quite ready to look forward, Bush-style; it's still eager to learn who really won the 2000 election. If you share this quaint antiquarian interest, you will want to read today's Orlando Sentinel, which contains the results  of a highly significant press recount of 15 small Florida counties.

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The Sentinel-led recount matters because the most important question to be resolved in Florida is this one: Who would have prevailed if a fair hand-recount of all the ballots in the state had been conducted? I don't know about you, but I would be quite comfortable knowing that the reason Bush is president is that a lot of Gore voters screwed up their ballots in ways that made discerning their intent impossible. I'd be comfortable knowing that the reason Bush is president is that some election officials decided not to count dimples as votes. I'd even be comfortable knowing that the reason Bush is president is that voting machines in poorer districts were more prone to create those dimpled chad. But I'll be in serious, long-term democratic distress if it turns out Bush is president only because a fair hand recount, under reasonable, strict standards, by duly elected canvassing boards, was never conducted (even if, as seems pretty clear, it was never conducted due to tactical legal mistakes by the liberal Florida Supreme Court, and by Gore himself).

The Sentinel recount looked only at counties using optically scanned ballots--where voters use pencils to mark ovals next to their candidate's name, much as in a machine-readable SAT test. There are no punch cards in these counties, and no debates about partially-punched chad. It's true that Al Gore didn't ask for a recount of these "optical" counties--he focused mainly on punch-card counties, and even there he concentrated on "undervotes" (ballots registering no vote) and not "overvotes" (ballots registering too many votes). But Gore was a fool to do so, as we learned when a Sentinel count of just one optical county-- Lake County--turned up a net gain of 130 overvotes clearly marked, in writing, for Gore. Ever since, it's been pretty clear that overvotes in optical counties contained "the most probable mother lode of hidden Gore ballots," as kausfiles wrote in an eerily prescient item 10 days ago.

The Sentinel has now mined that possible mother lode, excluding only optical counties that used "second chance" technology (machines that instantly reject invalid ballots after voters turn them in, giving the voters a chance to redo them). The results more or less bear out the implications of the "Lake County Effect"--Gore gained, not thousands of net votes, but 366 net votes out of a total of 1,700 valid votes recovered. Most of the recovered votes were overvotes (though the Sentinel also examined undervotes and recovered some).

What's more, these were clear Gore votes, not obtained by using some suspect touchy-feely standard of voter intent. They included 966 instances where voters marked a candidate and then also marked "write in" and wrote in that candidate's name. (These voters were counted in six of the 15 counties on Election Day, but in nine of them, including Lake, they weren't.) The clear, "easily determined" votes also included cases in which voters tried to erase their marks but the machines counted the erased mark anyway, cases in which voters used pens instead of pencils, and a few cases in which the machines just missed the mark.

Does that mean Gore is now "ahead"? Not quite. In the official tally, Gore lost by 537 votes. But that doesn't count the 174-vote gain he made in the fairly strict Palm Beach recount--votes that weren't included because Palm Beach finished a few hours late. If you give Gore those 174 votes, as any fair recount would, it leaves Bush's lead at 363. The Sentinel's 366 would seem to put Gore ahead by three! But not if you count the 16 votes he lost in the Palm Beach Post recount  of Miami-Dade, or the additional 45 or so votes he lost in the Naples Daily News recount of Collier County (using a strict chad standard). It's not even that simple, because the official count includes the 567 votes Gore gained in Broward County under a highly debatable dimple-friendly standard.

We won't learn who really won (if we ever do) until the full statewide "media consortium" recount of overvotes and undervotes, which isn't close to being completed. But today's Sentinel story reinforces the significance of its earlier Lake County count. It means Gore really did make a fatal error in choosing not to go after the overvotes. It makes the Miami Herald look pretty stupid for failing to recount the overvotes in its own well-hyped recount. (Personal note to Herald assistant managing editor Mark Seibel: Do you still think overvotes aren't worth paying "some accountant $110 an hour to look at"? You've been scooped, buddy.)

For some reason, in order to make the media recount palatable journalists have to pretend that they're not trying to determine who "really won" or calling into question President Bush's legitimacy. They're only trying to improve the process! They're looking at "confusing ballot designs" and other flaws, etc., with an eye toward the next election. The Sentinel's write up of its own results ("Small Counties Wasted More Than 1,700 Votes") reflects this respectable bipartisan purpose.

Kausfiles is all for election reform and future fairness. But wouldn't it be more honest to drop the respectable cover story and admit that the main, immediate import of the media recount is, unavoidably and retrospectively, to determine who really won the election? Editors and reporters can go on and on about how they are not undermining President Bush's legitimacy, but if it turns out that he lost on any fair recount, then of course his legitimacy will be undermined. It can't be otherwise in a democratic country.

Since I'd like a legitimate president, I hope it turns out Bush really won. But if he didn't--well, that's reality. He'll just have to get over it.

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