Bush and the Butterflies

Article excerpt

In what may be the (belated) final act of the Florida miselection saga, a consortium of major media outlets anointed George W. Bush the beneficiary--though not necessarily the winner--of their ten-month, $900,000 joint review of 175,000 ballots that were not included in Katherine Harris's official count. Bush gained because most of the consortium's participants emphasized one slice of their review--the finding that had the US Supreme Court not infamously halted the recount ordered by the state Supreme Court, Bush still would have squeaked past Al Gore by more than 400 votes, instead of 537. The front-page headline in the Wall Street Journal, a consortium member, was typical: "In Election Review, Bush Wins Without Supreme Court Help." Yet the header on the inside page was a better summation of the ballot project: "Final Tally in Florida Yields Mixed Results."

The true story is that the Florida mess cannot be definitively sorted out. That's no news flash, since the Florida election exposed numerous problems in vote tallying and demonstrated that the system was not up to collating accurately 6 million ballots in a 50-50 race. As the consortium--which included the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, AP, CNN and others--reported, there were several ballot-counting scenarios that placed Gore in the narrowest of leads (between 42 and 171 votes). Each of these was based on reviews of untallied ballots statewide, including undervotes (ballots not registering a presidential preference when tabulated) and overvotes (those on which counting machines detected more than one vote, as when someone selected a candidate and also wrote in the same candidate). But the Gore campaign, hoping to cherry-pick enough votes to slip past Bush, requested recounts only of undervotes in four heavily Democratic counties. It ignored the undervotes elsewhere and did not ask for hand counts of overvote ballots (which, it now seems, contained more uncounted Gore votes than did the undervote ballots). Gore and his crew waved the banner, "Let every vote count," but their legal strategy did not match the rhetoric. If Gore had pushed principle rather than relying on tactics, the headlines might be different today, for what that's worth. The consortium review also suggests that Bush's legal plan--an antidemocratic strategy of opposing all recounts--was excessive, leading him to an uglier victory than was necessary.

It's important to keep in mind that the numbers tossed out by the consortium are wisps. They don't provide the basis for sweeping declarations (like "the US Supreme Court had nothing to do with the outcome," or "Gore was robbed of victory"). They're based on various assumptions. For instance, the what-if-the-Supremes-had-not-butted-in scenario--which produces a slender Bush lead--assumes that four counties that had declared their refusal to recount ballots would have maintained that position. But suppose the state Supreme Court had forced them to conduct a recount. The consortium doesn't say what the results would have been. And, as the consortium acknowledges, it was a challenge for it to identify, months after the fact, the undervote and overvote ballots not tallied on Election Day. …