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A new study suggests that American voters favored Al Gore by a larger margin nationwide than his official plurality of more than a half million votes – possibly significantly larger.
The reason: ballots from poorer, heavily African-American precincts were over three times more likely to be thrown out than those from affluent, primarily white districts.
The study by the Democratic staff of the House Government Reform Committee discovered that a hodgepodge of voting machines – some modern and some outmoded – was not distinctive to Florida. The pattern was repeated across the country, contributing to a suppression of votes by blacks and other minority groups.
The congressional study did not address how this uneven pattern of thrown-away ballots – almost 2 million nationwide – might have affected the outcome of the presidential election last fall or whether any states that went narrowly to George W. Bush might have tipped into Gore's column.
But the disparities in the disqualified votes suggest that votes from low-income precincts with high African-American populations were more severely undercounted than votes in wealthier, whiter districts. Generally, Gore ran strongly in poorer areas and carried the African-American vote by a margin of more than 9-to-1 over Bush.
The study focused on 40 congressional districts in 20 states, about 9 percent of the 435 congressional districts. Out of more than 9 million ballots cast in those 40 districts, more than 200,000, or 2.2 percent, were not counted. In the low-income districts examined, the discard rate was 4 percent compared with 1.2 percent in the wealthier areas.
A Striking Variable
Though some ballots certainly represented voters making no choice for president, the study found evidence that only a tiny fraction of voters intentionally bypassed the presidential race. The one striking variable in the numbers related to the quality of the voting machinery.
Punch-card ballots – made infamous during the Florida recount battle – had a 7.7 percent error rate in poor districts and 2 percent error rate in affluent areas. By comparison, optical scanning systems that alerted voters to errors led to a sharp decline in discarded ballots, a 1.1 percent error rate in poor districts and 0.5 percent in wealthier ones.
The study's highest error rates were found in poor districts in Miami and Chicago where 7.9 percent of ballots were not counted and where punch-card ballots were used. The lowest error rate came in a poor, heavily black district in western Alabama where an optical scanning device was used and only 0.3 percent of the ballots registered no choice for president, the study found.
The study’s findings also undercut three leading Republican arguments about Election 2000.
One is that the so-called “undervote” in Florida – ballots registering no presidential choice – represented the voters’ intent, not a machine malfunction. The study makes clear that the far greater variable was the type of voting machine used.
Second, some Republican operatives have argued that Democratic voters simply weren’t very bright and thus spoiled their own ballots. Though inexperience among first-time voters and confusing ballot designs were factors in Florida, the new study showed that outmoded voting machines were the principal culprit.
Third, the study helps explain why exit polls might have shown stronger support for Gore in some states than the official results. Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Washington Times, in particular, has promoted a conspiracy theory that major national news networks demonstrated a liberal bias by willfully delaying calls for Bush in states that he carried by comfortable margins, when exit polls showed narrower results.
Exit polls would simply register how voters thought they had voted, not whether their votes were counted. In Florida, for instance, accurate exit polls would have shown Gore carrying the state, though narrowly. Tens of thousands of Gore voters would not have known that their ballots had failed to register a vote for president or that they had accidentally voted for someone else because of confusing ballot designs.
Gains Not Estimated
Though the new congressional study does not estimate how many votes Gore might have gained if updated voting technology had been used in all districts throughout the United States, the findings suggest that the black vote and the vote totals in other Democratic strongholds were depressed by the inferior voting equipment in lower-income precincts.
Newspaper reviews have shown that Gore was the favorite of Florida’s voters. A USA Today examination put Gore's likely Florida margin at 15,000 to 25,000 votes. However, a combination of irregularities in Florida vote-counting and Bush’s success in stopping recounts allowed him to win the state by 537 votes – out of six million votes cast.
By getting all of Florida’s 25 electoral, Bush narrowly won the Electoral College, though he trailed Gore by more than a half million votes nationwide.
A Shaky Mandate
Despite his tainted victory and a lack of a popular mandate, Bush entered the White House pushing a conservative political agenda. That strategy dominated the first few months of his presidency, but it also alienated Republican moderates and prompted Vermont’s Sen. James Jeffords to bolt the Republican Party. That gave the Democrats control of the U.S. Senate.
In the weeks since, Bush’s behavior has left more and more observers with the impression that he is unhappy in the job. Though in office less than six months, he has begun telling Republicans that he is ready to go back to his ranch in Crawford, Texas, if he doesn’t get his way in policy battles.
A source with knowledge about Bush’s day-to-day personal activities said the president often seems disengaged from his demanding responsibilities. The source said Bush spends a great deal of his time resting and working out.
Sometimes, Bush appears bored even in public. While celebrating his 55th birthday with family members in Kennebunkport, Maine, Bush dispassionately answered a few questions from reporters prior to a golf game with his father, former President George H.W. Bush. As his father sat upright in the golf cart, George W. Bush slouched backward, legs crossed, picking at the bottom of his golf shoe and talking to the cameras.
The presidency also has put new pressure on Bush’s immediate family -- and Bush has continued to demonstrate a questionable parental role in dealing with underage drinking charges against his 19-year-old twin daughters, Jenna and Barbara. The daughters skipped his birthday celebration in Maine, choosing to stay with friends in Texas.
For his part, Bush skipped a court hearing on July 6 at which Jenna’s lawyer entered a no contest plea on her behalf to a citation that she had used a false ID in an attempt to buy an alcoholic beverage, her second underage drinking offense. Legal experts say judges prefer to see both the teenage offender and a parent in court to indicate that the family takes the offense seriously.
Bush, who as Texas governor signed into law the restrictions on teenage drinking, also could have set an example for other parents by standing by his daughter in court. He could have shown that he is not unlike other Americans confronting legal and family troubles.
Instead, Bush chose to vacation with his father and some other relatives at the family’s ocean-front compound in Maine.
The decision was reminiscent of a situation last fall when Jenna was hospitalized for appendicitis in Texas. Rather than stay by his daughter's side, Bush left her in the hospital and went on a fishing holiday with his father and his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
Even reporters who have written favorably about Bush’s early tenure have begun to show new skepticism about the first popular-vote loser in more than a century to sit in the White House. For instance, the New York Times’ Frank Bruni wrote a “White House Memo” column noting Bush’s indiscriminate use of the word “amazing.”
In one case cited by Bruni, Bush commented on the fact that he and an Associated Press reporter had the same birthday. “The amazing thing,” Bush said, was that “we’ll have our birthday on the same day again next year.”
The following day, Bush mused about the demands of his job and its requirement that he receive daily briefings. “The amazing thing about this job,” Bush said, “is the job seems to follow you around.” [NYT, July 9, 2001]
Given the wrenching election battle of last fall, more and more Americans seem to be holding a similar opinion. They appear to be amazed that the awesome duties of the president of the United States are following George W. Bush around – especially since it's increasingly clear that the U.S. electorate wanted someone else.