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Recount Would Have Increased Bush Win, Papers Say

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From Times Staff and Wire Reports

A newspaper review of Florida’s “undervote” ballots concludes that President Bush would almost certainly still have won the state had the U.S. Supreme Court allowed a hand recount to be completed.

The Miami Herald and USA Today report in today’s editions that Bush would have expanded his 537-vote victory to a 1,665-vote margin if the recount ordered by the Florida Supreme Court had gone ahead under the most inclusive standards, in which even partial punches and dimples would have been counted.

When the process was stopped, recounts using a variety of standards had already had been completed in seven counties--Palm Beach, Volusia, Broward, Hamilton, Manatee, Escambia and Madison--and in 139 Miami-Dade County precincts.

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Bush’s 1,665-vote margin was based on the assumption that those numbers would stand but that in all the rest of the state the most generous standards would be applied.

However, the Herald reported that the balance would have tipped to Bush’s Democratic opponent, Vice President Al Gore, if a recount of the undervotes had been started from scratch in all 67 Florida counties using the most inclusive standards. Under that hypothetical recount, free of the fragmented chronology of the postelection contest, Gore would have won the White House, the paper found, but with an even narrower margin of victory than Bush--only 393 votes.

An undervote is a ballot on which no preference for president registered; an overvote is one on which more than one preference registered.

Seven other news organizations, including the Los Angeles Times, are collaborating on a separate, more extensive review of all 180,000 Florida ballots that were not counted because they were deemed invalid or spoiled. The results are expected in about a month.

The media groups retained the National Opinion Research Center, an independent social science research facility at the University of Chicago, to scrutinize uncounted ballots and to provide data on how each was miscast.

Unlike the Herald project, the consortium is examining both undervotes and “overvotes” in the state’s 67 counties. Nearly 120,000 ballots were voided as overvotes because more than one presidential candidate was marked.

Experts have blamed bad ballot design, such as the confusing “butterfly ballot” in Palm Beach County, and difficulties with election machinery for many of the overvotes.

The consortium members plan to put all of the ballot review data on Web sites, allowing free public use of a study expected to cost more than $500,000.

Florida newspapers, the Republican Party of Florida and Judicial Watch, a conservative government-watchdog group, have published a series of ballot reviews from individual counties since December. Results often have differed because of varying judgments and human error.

USA Today’s analysis focused exclusively on what might have happened if the recount had been allowed to continue.

The results bucked the expectations of both the Democratic and Republican teams during the Florida recount contest, finding that the more inclusive recount standards sought by Gore would have helped Bush. And the strictest standard sought by Republicans--that only clean ballot punches be counted--would have given Gore an extremely narrow three-vote victory. Both newspapers said that was too close to withstand the possibility of errors.

“Many Americans were asking the question, ‘What would the result be if the Florida Supreme Court’s order to conduct hand recounts in all 67 counties were carried out?’ ” Martin Baron, the Herald’s executive editor, said Tuesday. “We felt it was our responsibility to answer questions that so many people had.”

The review of 61,190 undervotes did not examine overvotes. Both papers are planning a separate analysis of overvotes next month.

The Florida Supreme Court order to conduct the hand counts specified that only undervotes should be counted. However, the U.S. Supreme Court decision halting the recount noted that overvotes were being excluded.

Gore supporters were quick to interpret the newspaper findings as evidence that the vice president should have won the election--and thus Florida’ 25 electoral votes and the presidency.

“What this shows is that if you count the voters’ intent, Gore wins. If you look for excuses not to count votes, Bush does better,” said Doug Hattaway, Gore’s national campaign spokesman, now working as a Democratic consultant in Boston.

But White House spokesman Ken Lisaius said the 537-vote victory is the correct tally.

“The law of the land are those rules that were in place on election day. Using that standard, President Bush won on election day,” he said.

While media reviews of the election are interesting, they do not answer the question of what constitutes a vote, said Philip Zelikow of the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia, who is helping craft a federal commission on election reform.

“The problem the Supreme Court found was that there was no consistent standard and no time to devise and fully apply one. So newspapers are now answering the ‘What if?’ questions without having to settle any of the problems the Supreme Court confronted,” he said.

The analysis found that, regardless of the undervote reviews, only one thing is truly clear: Precise numbers released on election night mask a world of imprecision and chaos.


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