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In a better-late-than-never look at the mess that was the Florida vote count, The Washington Post discovered what critics of George W. Bush’s “victory” have long alleged – that his 537-vote margin benefited from a host of irregularities, many traceable to his brother’s administration or to post-election Republican maneuvering.
The Post's most important new discovery might be evidence that Bush's side padded its lead with scores of absentee votes that were cast after Election Day or did not meet legal standards.
Those votes were counted in heavily Republican counties – though not in Democratic strongholds – after the Bush campaign rallied its supporters and the national news media to condemn Al Gore's campaign for initially demanding that legal requirements be followed.
“Matthew Hendrickson, a sailor aboard the cruiser USS Ticonderoga, mailed his overseas absentee ballot from Puerto Rico on Nov. 13, six days after the Election Day deadline,” the Post reported. “He knew the presidential race was undecided and he wanted Bush to win. Records show that Duval County included his vote in its results.”
Hendrickson’s vote was not alone. The Post reported that “at least 17 ballots examined by the Post in four north Florida counties were counted despite bearing postmarks dated after Nov. 7. Scores more were counted after arriving without postmarks in elections offices between Nov. 8 and Nov. 17, the deadline for overseas absentee ballots to be received.”
Republican operatives and sympathetic pundits condemned Gore as unpatriotic for insisting that legal standards be met for these ballots, many coming from American soldiers stationed overseas. When Gore's side relented and let many of these ballots be included, “the result was a rout of the Democrats in the northern counties, where Bush picked up 176 votes that lacked postmarks and other required features,” the Post said.
But the Bush forces followed a different strategy in counties of south Florida with high numbers of African-American, Hispanic and Jewish voters, according to the Post's study.
“Elsewhere, particularly in Democratic counties, canvassing boards saw things the opposite way – as did the Bush forces, who demanded that strict state rules be followed,” the Post reported. “In overwhelmingly Democratic Broward County, elections officials rejected 304 overseas ballots for various technical reasons, including 119 because they lacked postmarks. Miami-Dade invalidated about 200; Volusia threw out 43 and Orange 117. All three counties voted Democratic.”
In the two-part series [May 31 and June 1, 2001], the Post also reported that:
--At least a couple of thousand voters were improperly removed from Florida’s voting rolls under an extraordinary effort by Gov. Jeb Bush’s administration to purge ex-felons. State officials specifically ordered that “false positives” – meaning voters whose names and other personal data did not match those of actual felons – still be put in lists sent to county canvassing boards.
--Irregularities from this felon purge and from malfunctioning voting machines fell disproportionately on African-American voters, who favored Gore by 9-to-1. Even without the error-plagued felon purge, Florida’s strict rules against restoring civil rights of past felons have disqualified “31 percent of the state’s black men,” the Post said. That suggests Florida officials were well aware of the likely impact on the African-American vote from an aggressive “felon” purge.
--Despite complaints from Bush lawyer James A. Baker III about repeated recounts of Florida’s ballots, 18 of the state’s 67 counties “never recounted the ballots at all,” only rechecking the tallies of the original results. “To this day, more than 1.58 million votes [or about one-quarter of Florida's total] have not been counted a second time,” the Post said. Some county officials blamed the divergent recount procedures on Secretary of State Katherine Harris, a Bush loyalist, who provided no guidance on how to proceed.
--Gore “likely lost about 6,500 votes” in Palm Beach because of the poorly designed “butterfly ballot” that confused many elderly Jewish voters, according to the Post's analysis. In other counties, many more ballots were despoiled by confusion resulting from a “wraparound” ballot developed by Harris’ office, the Post said.
Though the Post series took pains to note that “no one has proven intent to disenfranchise any group of voters,” the study made clear that the cumulative impact of official decisions made both before and after Election Day benefited the Bush campaign, in large part by depressing the African-American vote.
Following up on groundbreaking work by BBC reporter Greg Palast about the felon purge, the Post concluded that “hundreds, perhaps thousands, of non-felons in Florida” were removed from Florida’s voting rolls. “The effort was so riddled with errors that a more precise tally will probably never be possible,” the Post said.
“But it is clear that at least 2,000 felons whose voting rights had been automatically restored in other states were kept off the rolls and, in many cases, denied the right to vote,” the Post added. Florida is one of about a dozen states that require ex-convicts to petition for restoration of voting rights, an expensive and time-consuming process.
The Post also noted that “the impact of this botched felon purge fell disproportionately on black Floridians and, by extension, on the Democratic Party, which won the votes of nine out of every 10 African-American voters, according to exit polls.”
This impact – depressing the African-American vote – was not entirely accidental as Jeb Bush’s subordinates instructed an outside contractor to include on the purge list voters whose names or addresses were similar to those of felons.
“Obviously, we want to capture more names that possibly aren’t matches and let the [county elections] supervisors make a final determination rather than exclude certain matches altogether,” said Emmett “Bucky” Mitchell, Gov. Bush's aide who headed the state purge effort, in a March 1999 e-mail to Database Technologies, the contractor hired to assemble the list.
While complying with this state order, the contractors expressed concern about the obvious danger that the state's approach would remove non-felons from the voting rolls. “We warned them,” James E. Lee, spokesman for Database Technologies, told the Post. The list “was exactly what the state wanted.”
The Los Angeles Times reached similar conclusions in a separate report that it published on May 21, 2001.
"A review by the Times of thousands of pages of records, reports and e-mail messages suggests the botched effort to stop felons from voting could have affected the ultimate outcome," the Times reported. "The reason: those on the list were disproportionately African-American. Blacks made up 66 percent of those named as felons in Miami-Dade, the state's largest county, for example, and 54 percent in Hillsborough County, which includes Tampa."
The Times quoted Sandylynn Williams, a black Tampa resident and Gore supporter who was turned away after being wrongly identified as a felon. "I don't feel like it was an honest mistake," she said. "I felt like they knew most of the minorities was going to vote against Bush." Williams was restored to the voting rolls 10 days after the election, the Times said.
Besides the felon purge, The Washington Post concluded that “black neighborhoods lost many more presidential votes than other areas because of outmoded voting machines and confusion about ballots.”
Even with this suppression of the black vote, Gore still might have come out on top if a full statewide recount had been conducted.
The Miami Herald and USA Today concluded in May that if so-called “overvotes,” which were improperly kicked out by voting machines, were tallied along with “undervotes” that showed voter intent with partially punched chads and indentations in multiple voting categories – indicating a malfunctioning machine – Gore would have prevailed by 242 votes.
Gore’s lead would have been higher if indentations only for president were counted, too. Bush would have prevailed in a recount only if all ballots with indentations were thrown out, the newspapers concluded. [Miami Herald/USA Today, May 11, 2001]
Yet, no thorough recount was ever permitted. George W. Bush’s campaign, aided by Harris and other Jeb Bush subordinates, blocked any comprehensive recount that might have evened out some of the irregularities.
Meanwhile, in the days after the Nov. 7 election, much of the national news media criticized Gore as a sore loser for not accepting Bush’s certified lead in Florida and conceding defeat.
The last chance for a meaningful official recount came on Dec. 8, when the Florida Supreme Court ordered a statewide examination of “undervotes” that had been rejected by vote-counting machines.
But Bush dispatched his lawyers to the U.S. Supreme Court and secured an unprecedented order from five Republican justices on Dec. 9 stopping the vote count. On Dec. 12, the same five justices prevented a resumption of the count or any other steps that might have reduced the inequities in the tally.
Election Through Suppression
Given the chaos of the Florida vote and Bush’s official lead amounting to 0.009 percent of the 5.9 million ballots cast, a more reasonable solution might have been for the U.S. Supreme Court to disqualify the Florida results altogether or divide up the electoral votes between Bush and Gore.
But that would have given Gore the presidency and that was not the desire of the five Republican justices who hope Bush will add to their conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court. Instead, Bush’s 537-vote margin was made official, awarding him Florida’s 25 electoral votes and the presidency.
Bush claimed his “victory” and a mandate for his conservative agenda although he had lost the national popular vote by more than a half million ballots and obviously was not the choice of a plurality of Floridians who went to the polls on Election Day.
It’s also increasingly clear that Bush gained the White House through a series of steps – some perhaps accidental and others clearly intentional – that disenfranchised thousands of African-American and Jewish voters in Florida.