What you should know about the Florida recount (Re: HBO's Recount)





You need to be made of stronger stuff than yours truly to watch Recount. I'm sure it's great, but I'm going to hold off until we inaugurate President Obama and I can stand to look back on it. In the meantime, Alessandra Stanley writes in Today's Times, here: "In 2001 painstaking postmortems of the Florida count, one by The New York Times and another by a consortium of newspapers, concluded that Mr. Bush would have come out slightly ahead, even if all the votes counted throughout the state had been re-tallied. But both studies also issued caveats about the varying standards used in different counties to count and reject ballots, including late-arriving votes from abroad, noting that had they been included and counted accurately and by the same standard, they probably would have given Mr. Gore the edge."

The following is from What Liberal Media?:

Following the court's announcement, a group of eight newspapers invested nearly a million dollars to hire the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago to undertake a detailed study of the Florida vote, to discover, if possible, who really won. The Bush administration always opposed this action and treated the ultimate correctness of the court's intervention as all the legitimacy it needed. And, during the long period before the results of the count were announced, the news outlets who funded the study communicated a decided impression that they were not terribly eager to call the president's (and hence the system's) legitimacy into question either. September 11 made this impression unmistakable. Top New York Times correspondent Richard Berke admitted as much when, shortly after the attacks, he declared the outcome of the recount to be "utterly irrelevant" and worried that its release might "stoke partisan tensions."[1]

Berke was right to be concerned. Shortly before the September 11 attacks, a Gallup Organization poll found that nearly half of Americans surveyed remain convinced that President Bush either "won on a technicality" or "stole the election." They were right, though this would have been difficult to discern based on the coverage the eventual release of the recount report received. The headlines read: "Study of Disputed Florida Ballots Finds Justices Did Not Cast the Deciding Vote" (New York Times) and "Florida Recounts Would Have Favored Bush" (Washington Post). These were misleading at best. What the NORC researchers really discovered was the Gore legal team's incredible incompetence. The lawyers happened, it turned out, to choose just about the only counting argument that would have lost Gore the election even had the court ruled in his favor. Lead member David Boies had explicitly ruled out a more inclusive recount of Florida's votes -- one that not only would have elected his man, but would have been immeasurably more fair to the people of Florida. Instead Boies asked the court to count "undervotes" but not "overvotes." Using that method, Bush did indeed outpoll Gore and the court's intervention did not ultimately make a difference. It was, perhaps, a perfect coda to a perfectly awful campaign.

But buried beneath the misleading headlines was the inescapable fact that Al Gore was the genuine choice of a plurality of Florida's voters as well as America's. As the AP report put it, "In the review of all the state's disputed ballots, Gore edged ahead under all six scenarios for counting all undervotes and overvotes statewide." In other words, he got more votes in Florida than George Bush by almost every conceivable counting standard. Gore won under a strict-counting scenario and he won under a loose-counting scenario. He won if you count "hanging chads" and he won if you counted "dimpled chads." He won if you count a dimpled chad only in the presence of another dimpled chad on the same ballot -- the so-called "Palm Beach" standard. He even won if you counted only a fully-punched chad. He won if you counted partially-filled oval on an optical scan and he won if you counted only a fully-filled optical scan. He won if you fairly counted the absentee ballots. No matter how you count it, if everyone who legally voted in Florida had had a chance to see their vote counted, Al Gore is our president. [2]

But by the time of the release of the report, the mainstream media had grown so protective of President Bush's legitimacy that many were willing to tar as crazy anyone who took the trouble to read the report carefully. To this reader anyway, they put one in mind of a husband who is doing everything he can to try to get his wife not only to forgive, but also to forget a past infidelity. The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz reported, "The conspiracy theorists have been out in force, convinced that the media were covering up the Florida election results to protect President Bush.... That gets put to rest today." Kurtz scoffed as well at the notion that anyone still cared about whether Bush had stolen the presidential election. "Now," he wrote, "the question is: How many people still care about the election deadlock that last fall felt like the story of the century -- and now faintly echoes like some distant Civil War battle?" [3] Following suit, the Associated Press even rewrote its own history. In September 2002, the news service carried a story from Florida that read: "Some unofficial ballot inspections paid for by consortiums of news agencies showed Bush winning by varying margins." But when the recounts were initially released in November 2001, the news service's editors acknowledged, "A full, statewide recount of all undervotes and overvotes could have erased Bush's 537-vote victory and put Gore ahead by a tiny margin ranging from 42 to 171 votes, depending on how valid votes are defined." [4] Meanwhile CNN's Candy Crowley fell back on that old reliable, "Maybe the best thing of all is that messy feelings at the Florida ballot have only proved the strength of our democracy...."

In fact, had the Supreme Court not intervened for Bush, it seems quite likely that Gore would have won the count despite his own side's incompetence. Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis informed an Orlando Sentinel reporter that he had never fully made up his mind, but he was considering the "overvote" standard that would likely have given the count to Gore. [5] Newsweek's Michael Isikoff also discovered a contemporaneous document demonstrating exactly this intent. [6] Hence those newspapers who reported even the narrowest victory for Bush without a Supreme Court intervention, may have been wrong. Once again, the so-called liberal media was spinning itself blind for the conservative Republican. But to point this out was to be termed a "conspiracy theorist" by the same "liberal media." Let's give the last word to the editors of the conservative London-based Economist, who, unlike their American counterparts, managed to read the results of recount with a clear eye, and hence, felt duty-bound to publish the following correction of its earlier coverage: "In the issues of December 16, 2000 to November 10, 2001, we may have given the impression that George W. Bush had been legally and duly elected president of the United States. We now understand that this may have been incorrect, and that the election result is still too close to call. The Economist apologizes for any inconvenience."

[1] Richard Berke, "Aftermath; it's not time for a party but for how long?" The New York Times, September 4, 2000, Week in Review, 3

[2] Eric Alterman, "Florida Speaks, Media Spins, World Turns," MSNBC.com, November 12, 2001

[3] Howard Kurtz, "George W. Bush; Now More than Ever," The Washington Post, Nov. 12, 2001, C1

[4] "Katherine Harris: Gore's 'Dogs of War' Bit Him," CNN.com, August 26, 2002

[5] David Damron and Roger Roy, "Both Sides Guessed Wrong," Orlando Sentinel, November 12, 2001

[6] On December 9, just as the U.S. Supreme Court stopped the counting, Lewis authored a memo instructing canvassing boards to isolate "overvotes" that demonstrated clear intent. "If you would segregate 'overvotes' as you describe and indicate in your final report how many where you determined the clear intent of the voter," he wrote "I will rule on the issue for all counties." Overvotes were clearly legal under Florida law, as a few counties had already included them in their counts. www.msnbc.com

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