Series-SkipperTM: There's a Scandal in Here Somewhere!

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July 18 2001 2:18 AM

Series-SkipperTM: There's a Scandal in Here Somewhere!

Series-Skipper™ is a service from kausfiles that lets readers avoid long, worthy newspaper series. (For more on the rationale for Series-Skipper™, click here.) Last Sunday's New York Times investigative report on Florida overseas ballots wasn't a series, but at 397 inches in length (counting graphics), with three sidebars and input from 24 reporters, it could have been! In response to overwhelming demand from civic-minded consumers who do not want to actually read this important story, kausfiles has extended the reach of its proprietary Series-Skipper™ technology.

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Story: "How Bush Took Florida: Mining the Overseas Absentee Vote," David Barstow and Don Van Natta Jr., New York Times, July 15, 2001.

What did the reporters do? Looked at all 3,704 overseas absentee ballot envelopes that came in after Election Day. About two-thirds of the votes they contained were eventually counted.

What the reporters couldn't do: Figure out which candidate got the votes in which envelopes (because the ballots were separated from the envelopes they came in).

Initial, startling pro-Gore fact: If those late-arriving overseas ballots hadn't been counted--and the election had been determined only by the votes received on Election Day--Gore would have won by 202 votes, according to Florida's official Katherine-Harris-approved returns. The late ballots (which under Florida law could be counted if they arrived by Nov. 17, as long as they were filled out on or before Election Day) changed the outcome when they went for Bush by a margin of 739 votes.

"Billboard" summary of article: "Under intense pressure from the Republicans, Florida officials accepted hundreds of overseas absentee ballots that failed to comply with state election laws. ... The flawed votes included ballots without postmarks, ballots postmarked after the election, ballots without witness signatures, ballots mailed from towns and cities within the United States and even ballots from voters who voted twice."

Background the Times doesn't give you:Salon writer Jake Tapper's Florida book, Down & Dirty, reported a conference call in which Bush "operatives" discussed committing voter fraud by getting soldiers to actually vote after Election Day. Tapper's anecdote was thinly documented--it came from an unidentified "knowledgeable Republican operative." Only one participant in the call was named, and the participant who uttered the key incriminating remark was not identified. Nor was it clear that the call actually resulted in any action being taken. But Tapper's account prompted a great deal of speculation regarding late overseas ballots: Had the Bush forces won Florida by illegally drumming up votes after the election was over?

Given this background, what should arguably be the real "billboard" paragraph? "A six-month investigation by The New York Times ... found no evidence of vote fraud by either party. In particular, while some voters admitted ... that they had cast illegal ballots after Election Day, the investigation found no support for the suspicions of Democrats that the Bush campaign had organized an effort to solicit late votes."

Even without organized voting fraud, did the "flawed" overseas ballots by themselves decide the election? Almost certainly not. Bush's official winning margin was 537 votes. There were only 680 "flawed" late ballots actually counted. Bush would have had to carry those ballots by a margin of 609 to 71--or almost 90 percent to 10 percent--for them to have changed the outcome. (Bush won the late overseas absentees, overall, by a 65 percent to 35 percent margin.) The Times cites a Harvard "expert on voting patterns and statistical models" who estimates that discarding the "flawed" ballots would have reduced Bush's margin to 245 votes. Still, this partial reduction in Bush's margin could have made the difference in combination with other potential troves of votes that arguably should have counted for Gore, such as the 176 votes from Palm Beach that were not included in the official tally, or the various batches of Gore "overvotes" found in media recounts.

Problem with thinking that the flawed ballots made even that much difference: Many of the flaws in the 680 questionable ballots were technicalities--such as the failure of a voter to include an address along with his signature. Gore generally argued that Florida should "count every vote" regardless of technical defects--an argument in which he was backed up, as the Times notes, by the Florida Supreme Court. Many of the "flawed" overseas ballots represented legitimate, clear expressions of voter intent and probably should have been counted.

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