Everything the Times thought about Florida was wrong!

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Nov. 13 2001 4:18 AM

Everything the New York Times Thinks About the Florida Recount Is Wrong!

It turns out the U.S. Supreme Court really did cast the deciding vote ...

Just when you thought the Florida recount story was settling down into a familiar bitter partisan dispute, the Orlando Sentinel has changed the story line again. The Sentinel, remember, was the paper that first uncovered the hidden cache  of valid, uncounted "overvotes"—seemingly double-voted ballots that, as the massive media recountof Florida has now confirmed, were the key to a potential Gore victory, if only he had known it.

Gore instead focused on "undervotes," ballots that initially registered no vote at all. It has been widely assumed that the real-life, statewide recount of Florida votes that was ordered by the Florida Supreme Court a year ago—and then abruptly stopped by the U.S. Supreme Court—was also limited to undervotes. Certainly the Florida court's opinion focuses on undervotes.

But the Sentinel had the witto call up Leon County Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis, who was actually supervising the real-life recount on Saturday, Dec. 9, 2000, when the U.S. Supreme Court stopped it. Lewis told the Sentinel that "he would not have ignored the overvote ballots."

Though he stopped short of saying he definitely would have expanded the recount to include overvotes, Lewis emphasized 'I'd be open to that.'

"If that had happened," the Sentinel notes, "it would have amounted to a statewide hand recount. And it could have given the election to Gore," since salvaging the valid overvotes turns out to have been "Gore's only path to victory." Lewis had apparently planned a hearing for later that Saturday, at which the overvote issue was going to be discussed.

Why is this significant? Because the comforting, widely publicized, Bush-ratifying spin given to the recent media recount by the New York Times(and the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post) has been that—as the Times' lede confidently put it—"George W. Bush would have won even if the United States Supreme Court had allowed the statewide manual recount of the votes that the Florida Supreme Court had ordered to go forward." [Emphasis added.] (The Times' front-page headline was "Study of Disputed Florida Ballots Finds Justices Did Not Cast the Deciding Vote.")

We now know, thanks to the Sentinel, that this Times take (and the somewhat more hedged ledes in the Journal and Post) is thoroughly bogus—unfounded and inaccurate. If the recount had gone forward Judge Lewis might well have counted the overvotes in which case Gore might well have won. Certainly the Times doesn't know otherwise.

That Judge Lewis would probably have counted the overvotes at the perverse (in hindsight) urging of the Bush camp (which either wanted to delay the proceedings or erroneously thought the overvotes would boost Bush's total) doesn't alter this conclusion.

It looks as if the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court who stopped the Florida count cast the deciding vote after all. …

P.S.: Does this mean Gore's undervote-obsessed recount strategy wasn't foolish, as previously charged  in this space? Not necessarily. By the time the issue of the overvotes was raised before Judge Lewis, on Dec. 9, it was almost too late to count them before Dec. 12, the date accepted (foolishly!) by Gore's lawyers as the deadline for selecting Florida's electors. Any recount, even if it put Gore ahead, would have been chaotic and disputed, as this Sentinel companion story  suggests. Had Gore instead asked for a full statewide recount immediately after the Nov. 7 election, as some of his aides urged, there would have been plenty of time to count both undervotes and overvotes before Dec. 12.

P.P.S.: If any paper gets a Pulitzer out of this Florida mess, shouldn't it be the Sentinel?

Mickey Kaus' political commentary can be found at www.kausfiles.com.

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