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Al Gore was the choice of Florida’s voters -- whether one counts hanging
chads or dimpled chads. That was the core finding of the eight news
organizations that conducted a review of disputed Florida ballots. By any
chad measure, Gore won.
Gore won even if one doesn’t count the 15,000-25,000 votes that USA Today estimated Gore lost because of illegally designed “butterfly ballots,” or the hundreds of predominantly African-American voters who were falsely identified by the state as felons and turned away from the polls.
Gore won even if there’s no adjustment for George W. Bush’s windfall of about 290 votes from improperly counted military absentee ballots where lax standards were applied to Republican counties and strict standards to Democratic ones, a violation of fairness reported earlier by the Washington Post and the New York Times.
Put differently, George W. Bush was not the choice of Florida’s voters anymore than he was the choice of the American people who cast a half million more ballots for Gore than Bush nationwide. [For more details on studies of the election, see Consortiumnews.com stories of May 12, June 2 and July 16.]
Yet, possibly for reasons of “patriotism” in this time of crisis, the news organizations that financed the Florida ballot study structured their stories on the ballot review to indicate that Bush was the legitimate winner, with headlines such as “Florida Recounts Would Have Favored Bush” [Washington Post, Nov. 12, 2001].
Post media critic Howard Kurtz took the spin one cycle further with a story headlined, “George W. Bush, Now More Than Ever,” in which Kurtz ridiculed as “conspiracy theorists” those who thought Gore had won.
“The conspiracy theorists have been out in force, convinced that the media were covering up the Florida election results to protect President Bush,” Kurtz wrote. “That gets put to rest today, with the finding by eight news organizations that Bush would have beaten Gore under both of the recount plans being considered at the time.”
Kurtz also mocked those who believed that winning an election fairly, based on the will of the voters, was important in a democracy. “Now 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?” he wrote.
In other words, the elite media’s judgment is in: "Bush won, get over it." Only "Gore partisans" – as both the Washington Post and the New York Times called critics of the official Florida election tallies – would insist on looking at the fine print.
The Actual Findings
While that was the tone of coverage in these leading news outlets, it’s still a bit jarring to go outside the articles and read the actual results of the statewide review of 175,010 disputed ballots.
“Full Review Favors Gore,” the Washington Post said in a box on page 10, showing that under all standards applied to the ballots, Gore came out on top. The New York Times' graphic revealed the same outcome.
Earlier, less comprehensive ballot studies by the Miami Herald and USA Today had found that Bush and Gore split the four categories of disputed ballots depending on what standard was applied to assessing the ballots – punched-through chads, hanging chads, etc. Bush won under two standards and Gore under two standards.
The new, fuller study found that Gore won regardless of which standard was applied and even when varying county judgments were factored in. Counting fully punched chads and limited marks on optical ballots, Gore won by 115 votes. With any dimple or optical mark, Gore won by 107 votes. With one corner of a chad detached or any optical mark, Gore won by 60 votes. Applying the standards set by each county, Gore won by 171 votes.
This core finding of Gore’s Florida victory in the unofficial ballot recount might surprise many readers who skimmed only the headlines and the top paragraphs of the articles. The headlines and leads highlighted hypothetical, partial recounts that supposedly favored Bush.
Buried deeper in the stories or referenced in subheads was the fact that the new recount determined that Gore was the winner statewide, even ignoring the “butterfly ballot” and other irregularities that cost him thousands of ballots.
The news organizations opted for the pro-Bush leads by focusing on two partial recounts that were proposed – but not completed – in the chaotic, often ugly environment of last November and December.
The new articles make much of Gore’s decision to seek recounts in only four counties and the Florida Supreme Court’s decision to examine only “undervotes,” those rejected by voting machines for supposedly lacking a presidential vote. A recurring undercurrent in the articles is that Gore was to blame for his defeat, even if he may have actually won the election.
"Mr. Gore might have eked out a victory if he had pursued in court a course like the one he publicly advocated when he called on the state to 'count all the votes,'" the New York Times wrote, with a clear suggestion that Gore was hypocritical as well as foolish.
The Washington Post recalled that Gore "did at one point call on Bush to join him in asking for a statewide recount" and accepting the results without further legal challenge, but that Bush rejected the proposal as "a public relations gesture."
The Bush Strategy
Instead of supporting a full and fair recount, Bush chose to cling to his official lead of 537 votes out of some 6 million cast, Bush counted on his brother Jeb’s state officials to ensure the Bush family’s return to national power.
To add some muscle to the legal maneuvering, the Bush campaign dispatched thugs to Florida to intimidate vote counters and jacked up the decibel level in the powerful conservative media, which accused Gore of trying to steal the election and labeled him "Sore Loserman."
With Bush rejecting a full recount and media pundits calling for Gore to concede, Gore opted for recounts in four southern Florida counties where irregularities seemed greatest. Those recounts were opposed by Bush’s supporters, both inside Gov. Jeb Bush’s administration and in the streets by Republican hooligans flown in from Washington. [For more details, see stories from Nov. 24, 2000 and Nov. 27, 2000]
Stymied on that recount front, Gore carried the fight to the state courts, where pro-Bush forces engaged in more delaying tactics, leaving the Florida Supreme Court only days to fashion a recount remedy.
Finally, on Dec. 8, facing an imminent deadline for submitting the presidential election returns, the state Supreme Court ordered a statewide recount of “undervotes.” This tally would have excluded so-called “overvotes” – which were kicked out for supposedly indicating two choices for president.
Bush fought this court-ordered recount, too, sending his lawyers to the U.S. Supreme Court. There, five Republican justices stopped the recount on Dec. 9 and gave a sympathetic hearing to Bush’s claim that the varying ballot standards in Florida violated constitutional equal-protection requirements.
At 10 p.m. on Dec. 12, two hours before a deadline to submit voting results, the Republican-controlled U.S. Supreme Court instructed the state courts to devise a recount method that would apply equal standards, a move that would have included all ballots where the intent of the voter was clear. The hitch was that the U.S. Supreme Court gave the state only two hours to complete this assignment, effectively handing Florida’s 25 electoral votes and the White House to Republican George W. Bush.
A Third Hypothetical
The articles about the new recount tallies make much of the two hypothetical cases in which Bush supposedly would have prevailed: the limited recounts of the four southern Florida counties – by 225 votes – and the state Supreme Court’s order – by 430 votes. Those hypothetical cases dominated the news stories, while Gore’s statewide-recount victory was played down.
Yet, the newspapers made little or nothing of the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision represented a third hypothetical. Assuming that a brief extension were granted to permit a full-and-fair Florida recount, the U.S. Supreme Court decision might well have resulted in the same result that the news organizations discovered: a Gore victory.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s proposed standards mirrored the standards applied in the new recount of the disputed ballots. The Post buries this important fact in the 22nd paragraph of its story.
“Ironically, it was Bush’s lawyers who argued that recounting only the undervotes violated the constitutional guarantee of equal protection. And the U.S. Supreme Court, in its Dec. 12 ruling that ended the dispute, also questioned whether the Florida court should have limited a statewide recount only to undervotes,” the Post wrote. “Had the high court acted on that, and had there been enough time left for the Florida Supreme Court to require yet another statewide recount, Gore’s chances would have been dramatically improved.”
In other words, if the U.S. Supreme Court had given the state enough time to fashion a comprehensive remedy or if Bush had agreed to a full-and-fair recount earlier, the popular will of the American voters – both nationally and in Florida – might well have been respected. Al Gore might well have been inaugurated president of the United States.
But this outcome was not the favored hypothetical of the news organizations, which apparently wanted to avoid questions about their patriotism. If they had simply given the American people the unvarnished facts, the reality that the voters of Florida favored Al Gore might have bolstered the belief that Bush indeed did steal the White House. That, in turn, could have undermined his legitimacy during the current crisis over terrorism.
In its coverage of the latest recount numbers, the national news media also showed little regard for the fundamental principle of democracy: that leaders derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, not from legalistic tricks, physical intimidation and public-relations maneuvers.
It is that understanding that is most missing in the news accounts of the latest recount figures.
Presumably, the American people are supposed to accept that everything just turned out right – the Bush dynasty was restored to power, the proper order was back in place. Anyone who begs to differ is a “conspiracy theorist” or a “Gore partisan.”