Ever since the Miami-Dade County canvassing board abruptly stopped its manual recount of disputed presidential ballots on Nov. 22, supporters of Al Gore have complained that the Democratic nominee was unfairly deprived of legitimate votes.
Independent reviews of those ballots by two Florida newspapers, however, indicate that the former vice president would not have gained enough extra votes to overtake George W. Bush in the tumultuous postelection race for the White House.
The Miami Herald reported Monday that, based on its own examination of 10,644 ballots that did not register votes in tabulating machines, Gore would have netted only an additional 49 votes from the state’s most populous county.
Even when joined with Democratic gains from three other counties that conducted manual recounts--Broward, Palm Beach and Volusia--Gore would have trailed Bush by 140 votes and would have lost the state, the Herald concluded.
The Palm Beach Post last month reported different vote tallies, but essentially the same result. After reviewing the dimples, hanging chads and other marks on Miami-Dade’s disputed punch-card ballots, the paper said Bush would have picked up six votes overall in the county, leaving Gore even further behind.
Although Republicans largely have denounced the postelection ballot reviews as unnecessary and disruptive, the White House welcomed the latest reports from Florida. “Hopefully, all the focus on the past is over with,” President Bush told reporters Monday at the start of a Cabinet meeting. “It’s time to move forward.”
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer was more enthusiastic. “We’ve never thought it’s been in doubt,” he said. “And I think the overwhelming, overwhelming majority of the American people have moved on and never thought it was in doubt. And it doesn’t change anything in this White House about what we’re doing. This election has been settled a long time ago.”
But Douglas Hattaway, who served as Gore’s spokesman during the Florida recount, refused to give ground. “This does not show that Bush won Florida by any stretch of the imagination,” said Hattaway, now a political consultant in Boston.
He said that Gore and his aides debated at the time whether it was a mistake to request recounts in only four counties rather than the entire state. Gore later asked Bush to join him in requesting a statewide recount, but Bush declined.
“We won’t know who really won until all the undervotes and overvotes are counted in all 67 counties in Florida,” Hattaway said.
Neither newspaper review affects Florida’s certified vote, which gave Bush 537 votes more than Gore of the nearly 6 million cast in the state. Nor is it clear whether the three officials on the Miami-Dade County canvassing board would have counted the ballots the same way.
Democrats complained vociferously when the board voted to stop a manual recount of disputed ballots after officials concluded that they did not have enough time to meet a state-imposed deadline. The Gore camp had hoped to pick up as many as 600 more votes in Miami-Dade County, a Democratic stronghold.
A consortium of media organizations, including the Los Angeles Times, has hired an independent social science organization to conduct a separate, more complete review of disputed ballots from all 67 counties in Florida. Unlike the studies done so far, the reviewers are examining “overvote” ballots in which a voter marked more than one candidate for president, as well as “undervotes” in which the voter failed to properly mark any candidate.
Since the project began early this month, 20 teams of coders trained and supervised by the National Opinion Research Council, a nonprofit group affiliated with the University of Chicago, have reviewed more than one-third of the 180,000 uncounted ballots in the state. Data will not be released until all the ballots are inspected, probably in early April.
The Miami Herald and its parent company, Knight Ridder Inc., retained a public accounting firm, BDO Seidman LLP, to examine the Miami-Dade County undervotes. An accountant and a Herald reporter reviewed each ballot over a three-week period.
The paper reported that 1,555 ballots bore “some kind of marking that might be interpreted” as a vote for Gore. An additional 1,506 bore a marking that could be interpreted as a vote for Bush. The other ballots either had no discernible markings, had marks in places assigned to no candidate or were marked for third-party candidates.
The various ballot reviews in Florida were prompted by the chaotic struggle that followed the Nov. 7 election. After five weeks of bitter political and legal turmoil, the U.S. Supreme Court on Dec. 12 ordered a halt to a court-ordered statewide recount. The move effectively ended the contest with Bush in the lead.
An advisory task force appointed by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the president’s younger brother, is due to issue a report Thursday that will recommend overhauling the state’s election system by creating uniform statewide balloting and vote-counting standards.
The report will urge Florida to abolish the punch-card ballots and tabulation machinery used in Miami-Dade and 23 other counties. That system produced 84% of the spoiled ballots in the state.
The bipartisan task force will propose that Florida instead use optical scanning systems, in which voters shade in ovals on paper ballots that are read by machines. The system is not foolproof, but spoilage rates tend to drop sharply when ballots are counted at the precinct level and voters are given a chance to rectify mistakes.
The task force also will call for more voter education and poll-worker training, easier requirements for those filing absentee ballots and outlawing political activity by county and state election officials.