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The Media Recount

April 4, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT
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DEMONSTRATORS ( Chanting ): Revote! Revote! Revote! Revote! Revote! Revote!

TERENCE SMITH: For five weeks last fall, the whole world was watching Florida, riveted by recounts, hanging chads, legal warfare, and then ultimately, by a U.S. Supreme Court decision that paved the road to the White House for George W. Bush.

CHIEF JUSTICE WILLIAM REHNQUIST: I, George Walker Bush do solemnly swear…

GEORGE W. BUSH: I, George Walker Bush do solemnly swear…

CHIEF JUSTICE WILLIAM REHNQUIST: That I will…

TERENCE SMITH: But the recounting and reviewing of ballots did not end with the Bush victory. Three separate media efforts set out to examine, firsthand, the contested ballots in the state that proved pivotal.

The Palm Beach Post recently published its analysis of the “overvotes” in that hotly contested county. Overvotes were those that recorded more than one choice for President on the now-infamous butterfly ballot. The determination: Vice President Al Gore would have gained roughly 6,600 votes had they been recounted completely, more than enough to secure the state’s 25 electoral votes.

But today, The Miami Herald published the results of its statewide review of the “undervotes,” those ballots which recorded no clear choice for president, and which added terms like “hanging chad” and “dimpled Chad” to the popular lexicon. Acting in concert with USA Today, the Herald hired an accounting firm, B.D.O. Seidman, to help it review the undervotes in all of Florida’s 67 counties.

The paper determined that had the court-ordered recounts continued in Florida, President Bush still would have won under almost all scenarios. Indeed, the paper wrote, the 537-vote Bush lead would have “tripled to 1,665 under the generous counting standards advocated by Democrat Al Gore.” But the paper noted that in Palm Beach and Broward Counties, hundreds of ballots that were indistinguishable from other questionable but accepted votes had been discarded. If those votes had been counted, the Herald notes, “Gore would be in the White House today.” At the White House this afternoon, spokesman Ari Fleischer was asked the president’s reaction.

ARI FLEISCHER: The president has thought that the case was closed for months. He thought the case was closed last year. The American people spoke and George W. Bush was elected the president. And he thinks that the American people have moved way beyond this. He certainly has.

TERENCE SMITH: Meanwhile, a consortium of national news organizations, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Associated Press and CNN, among others, has commissioned a survey research firm to examine all 180,000 contested ballots statewide. It hopes to establish the definitive record of the balloting in Florida and to publish the results next month.

TERENCE SMITH: For more on the Miami Herald voting report we turn to the newsman in charge, managing editor Mark Seibel.

Mark Seibel, welcome.

MARK SEIBEL: Thank you.

TERENCE SMITH: What can you tell us was the central lesson from this whole exercise that you went through, this costly and time-consuming recount?

MARK SEIBEL: Well, there are many lessons, but I think the central one for us is one that people have heard before, which is that punch-card balloting is really a very imprecise, problem-beset way of casting votes. And fortunately in Florida, we’re going to jettison the system, but lots of other states use it. Lots of other states ought to be concerned about the accuracy of the system. We’ve seen ballots that are quite difficult to tell whether they were meant to be votes or not. And, of course, if you vary the standard with how you judge these ballots, you end up with a different result. And I just think a balloting system where the result can change depending on how you judge the ballot is not a system that we really want.

TERENCE SMITH: A lot of people, and certainly a lot of Gore supporters and perhaps even his legal team, were operating on an assumption last November and December that if the recount could proceed that their man would come out ahead. Were they operating, in fact, under a false assumption?

MARK SEIBEL: Well, I think they were. One of the things that’s important to remember about the recount scenario that the Florida Supreme Court set out was that it would not have counted…recounted the ballots in Palm Beach, Broward and Volusia Counties, and also in parts of Miami-Dade because those had already been recounted by hand. So they were exempted from this. Well, those were Gore strongholds. What we learned about the other counties in the ballot review is that they were Bush strongholds. And as Bush strongholds, they produced dimples for Bush, not dimples for Gore. So I think this maybe was lost on the Gore people. There is so much suggestion that a liberal standard for judging ballots would benefit Gore when, in fact, what our ballot review shows is that a liberal standard in a county where Bush carried the machine vote would also benefit Bush, because dimpling is really a random, probably a machine-caused function, and it had nothing to do with voter education or political affiliation.

TERENCE SMITH: In fact, you turned up an irony here that if the votes had been recounted by the standard that Gore wanted, it would have benefited President Bush, and vice versa, right?

MARK SEIBEL: That’s absolutely true. When we looked at those counties where the Florida Supreme Court order would have been in effect, Bush benefits from the loose interpretation of a vote, meaning a dimple counts. Bush benefits in all of those counties to the point that he would have grown his lead from 537 to about 1,665. If you do the reverse and you come down with a strict standard, which the Republicans were pushing, the idea that only a clearly punched Chad or cleanly punched ballot could be counted as a vote, well, the result was that Al Gore could have eked out a small victory of about three votes.

TERENCE SMITH: The Gore supporters are also arguing today– the vice president himself as declined any substantive comment– but his supporters are arguing that the outcome won’t truly be known until all the contested ballots — overvotes, undervotes — all of them are counted. Do you agree with that?

MARK SEIBEL: Well, I don’t know. I mean, I think it’s always useful if you can look at a few more ballots. And of course, we’re looking at overvotes in the counties, as are some other newspapers. I think that’s going to add a few hundred more valid votes to the total. I think, in fact, if you really wanted to argue it, we’re probably dealing with an unknowable here. The margin of error is certainly large enough to include all of the totals we’re talking about, and any sort of mathematical error or just a simply different perception of the ballot could change the outcome.

One of the things I do think the Gore people are saying, and I think it’s an interesting point and one we explored in the paper this morning, is that these ballots that were not counted by the machine on election night or the day after on November 8 when the full recount was ordered by the state, they probably should have been reviewed by the canvassing boards immediately. And that could well have resulted in a different outcome simply because of the time at which they were being viewed. One of the things that happened in all of this battle is we started adding votes from Nassau County, and we revisited the overseas absentee ballots, and so it’s hard to get a real clean total because so many other events got in the way.

TERENCE SMITH: But I take it you don’t feel that the outcome would be different even if more ballots were recounted?

MARK SEIBEL: I don’t believe so. I mean, you know, we’ll know in a few weeks. My guess right now, depending on the standard, is that we may be adding a few more Gore ballots, but is it enough to overtake that 1,665-vote lead? And that’s what we’ll be looking at. But, you know, the issue here, again I go back to it, is that what we really learned from all of this, we can talk about the numbers and specific numbers and of course there’s great curiosity in finding specific numbers, but the truth is that any time you can deal with a ballot in two, three, four different ways and either count it as a vote or not count it as a vote depending on which way you choose to deal with it, just simply is a bad system, and I think that’s the number-one message of all of this.

TERENCE SMITH: Did you learn anything in the course of this process about the allegations of disenfranchisement from and of African American voters, minorities in Florida? Did that hold up in your recount?

MARK SEIBEL: Well, not among the undervotes. Now, we still believe that if you look at overvotes, that we are going to see a disproportionate number of overvotes among precincts that are largely minority African American precincts. But among the undervotes, it seems to me that the message there is not one of ethnic disenfranchisement or age disenfranchisement or any of those kinds of things. It’s really a function of the machines not allowing voters who tried to vote to make the correct mark on their ballots.

TERENCE SMITH: And that sounds like the central issue. Mark Seibel, thank you very much.

MARK SEIBEL: Thank you.