December 21, 2000
Terence Smith leads a discussion on the Florida recount, as members of the media take another look at the disputed ballots.
The NewsHour Media Unit is funded by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts.
TERENCE SMITH: The ballot recount began in Broward County, Florida on Monday, days after the election was decided and a victor declared. But unlike past recounts, this one will have no official bearing on the presidency. It was neither court-ordered nor demanded by a campaign. It was requested by media organizations and a conservative watchdog group. The recount effort is being spearheaded by the "Miami Herald" and other Florida newspapers, which hope to examine all 60,000 so-called under votes statewide. The Washington Post, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Associated Press among others are deciding whether they will join the recount.
But large questions loom: What standards for recounting should apply? And should the media be trying to recount votes from an election already decided?
We discuss these questions this evening with Mark Seibel, the Miami Herald city editor, who is overseeing the ballot reexamination for his paper, with Judge Charles Burton, chairman of the Palm Beach County canvassing board, Republican Congressman Mark Foley of Palm Beach, Florida. And with Hal Bruno, retired political director of ABC News.
Welcome to you all. Mark Seibel, tell us, explain to us what you're doing and what you hope to accomplish.
|Recount vs. review|
MARK SEIBEL: Well, first off, we don't call this a recount. We call it a review because we don't know, at the end of the day, after we've looked at all these ballots, what sort of a count we'll be able to come up with. What we're trying to do-- there are lots of questions outstanding from the Florida voting situation, including a number of ballots that were in dispute and that the state Supreme Court at least felt should be looked at. So we're going to try and do that. We're trying to do it in a fashion that objectively describes the ballot and then if we think we can apply the standards that Palm Beach and Broward have given us, as best we understand them, then we're going to try and do that. And at the end of the day, we'll come up with something.
I don't know whether it'll be a count, I don't know whether one will be able to say Al Gore would have won or George Bush rightly won, or if nothing else, we hope to come up with some information that's illuminating about the way we vote, the process by which we count votes. Certainly there were questions asked about the value of a manual recount, and I think those are questions that the news media correctly needs to explore.
TERENCE SMITH: Congressman Foley, if it does turn up new information, what's wrong with that?
REP. MARK FOLEY: Well, we don't like it simply because there are no standards. In fact, he just said, "We're not certain of the way we're going to conduct this or what the outcome will be." I think by now, these ballots are somewhat tainted. They've been shipped back and forth, they've been examined by people in Palm Beach County and Broward. I'm very, very concerned that this could attempt to undermine the legitimacy of this President. Mr. Gore conceded, the election's over. I think it's time, after watching the opening of this show, where members of Congress are joining together and working on education policies, that we focus on moving ahead, not backwards.
So I question: What is going to be achieved by this? If the Miami Herald and other news sources were looking at the machines, looking at the problems the machines created, I may be thinking differently now. But what I hear is we're sitting in a warehouse with reporters, we do not know the political affiliation of those reporters. As I understand it, the Miami Herald and most organizations who are doing the recounting endorsed Mr. Gore, so not suggesting a bias, but clearly they certainly an had an interest in the outcome by suggesting who may make a better president. And now, six weeks later, we're going to start going over these ballots once again and creating an element of doubt in the public's mind.
Yes, there probably is some doubt today, and I regret that. I regret the confusion of Palm Beach County's butterfly ballot. I regret some of the allegations being lodged against our communities. But we're not counting 67 counties, we're not asking for recounts apparently where there was a higher percentage of undervotes in Chicago and in Illinois. There was a higher percentage in Georgia. Nobody's asking for that because they say, "Oh, well, we won that by large majorities." Well, the fact remains, by constantly dredging up and looking to see if you have a better standard than the Supreme Court could discern, then I think you've created a problem for this president.
TERENCE SMITH: All right, Hal Bruno, what about those complaints and the suggestion that it ultimately will delegitimize the presidency of George W. Bush?
HAL BRUNO: It'll have absolutely no impact on the Bush presidency. George Bush is the president-elect, he's going to serve as president regardless of what any review by the newspapers show. The Miami Herald is doing exactly what a good newspapers should do is to analyze, find out what went wrong and presumably in the end, come up with ideas that people can discuss to make it better.
Obviously, Florida is a patchwork of election rules, it varies greatly from county to county. The standards seem to change from county to county, and the Miami Herald's to be praised for what it's doing. If I were still working, and I was the head of a major news organization, I would do a nationwide study of how America votes. I'm sure there are a lot of states out there that have all the problems that were revealed in Florida this time. The only difference is they never were put to the test in a close election in which the presidency hinged on what happened in this state. Florida's' the first one to ever have to face that. But I suspect that, if you went all over the country, you would find all kinds of problems with voting. And I think that's the responsibility of the news media to do that, to come up with a nationwide study: Here's where the strengths are, here's where the weaknesses are, here are some things that need to be changed.
|People want to know|
TERENCE SMITH: Judge Burton, you more than most Americans have had some experience counting ballots. What do you think of this exercise? What do you think can come of it? Is it a good idea?
JUDGE CHARLES BURTON: Well, I think certainly, particularly the folks here in Palm Beach County are very interested in seeing, you know, how their votes were counted or were not counted, as the case may be. I mean, I agree with Hal that I think that certainly for a news organization to come and document their observations on the various ballots I think is a good thing. For example, they can categorize ballots as these are dimpled ballots, these are indentations, these are impressions that you could hardly see. I think that's a good thing, and I think that would lead to people all over the country, as Hal indicated-- this is not unique to Palm Beach County, and undervoting is not unique to this country in elections.
We've always had a very serious problem of undervotes, so I think it's a good thing. And I think hopefully some good can come out of this to, you know, result in changes in election laws and the way we vote.
TERENCE SMITH: But, Judge Burton, what if, in the end, the news organizations concluded that the wrong man was awarded the state? What would be the effect of that?
JUDGE CHARLES BURTON: And I have a little problem with news organizations going in and saying, "based on whatever standard we choose to look at, you know, we would have declared this person the winner." I'm not so sure that's going to do us any good or do the country any good, but I certainly think that people want to know what's going on with these ballots down here, particularly, for example, Miami-Dade where a recount had never taken place. So I think that's a good thing. I think certainly to report on their findings, to report on the condition of the various ballots, I think that's a good thing. I'm not so sure they ought to come out with the conclusion because, as Hal said, they could go all across the country and find votes everywhere from people who use the punch card system.
TERENCE SMITH: Mark Seibel, what about the question of standards? Who how are you going to decide what vote is what?
MARK SEIBEL: Well, what we've... we looked at that. We think, actually, that there were standards set. Palm Beach had a standard. Broward had a standard. What we have attempted to do-- and I want to correct something that Congressman Foley said. We actually, the reporters are not deciding what these ballots look like. We've hired an outside auditing company, BDO Seidman, a national company, to actually examine the ballots for us and to describe, as Judge Burton pointed out, whether something is dimpled or hanging chad with one corner attached or two corners attached or three corners attached or whether there's no mark at all or whether it's cleanly punched in the presidential position and examine what else is on the ballot in terms of dimples, chads and clean punches and to describe that ballot for us.
And then what we hope to do is, through a computer sort, just say, well, there were x number of ballots that looked like this and x number of ballots that did that. So we're going to try, we think, to quantify using the guidelines that both Palm Beach and Broward set out to categorize the ballots. We don't know in the end, as we do that-- we're only about 1,600 ballots into this process-- to know how that will turn out or what we can publish from that. But that's the goal, and we'll go through each county. And we'll even look at those counties where there were ballots that were marked by hand and read by hand just to follow through on the methodology throughout the entire state.
|A nonpartisan count|
REP. MARK FOLEY: Can I ask a question of Mark, by chance?
TERENCE SMITH: Go ahead.
REP. MARK FOLEY: Well, there were 175,000 under counts in the entire state. Why aren't you looking at those?
MARK SEIBEL: Well, there were actually 60,000... there were 60,000 undervotes. There were about 120,000, maybe 125,000 what's called overvotes. Over votes, for people who don't know, are ballots where two positions in the presidential race were marked. We're not looking at those right now for the simple reason that they never became part of the court case. Now, you might ask that question: Would it be useful to look at it? And I think there is some interest in what those overvotes might show. But our methodology, we tried as closely as we could in setting up the methodology to follow what the court requested and what the canvassing boards did. And, in fact, the overvotes were never raised as part of the legal case.
REP. MARK FOLEY: But what you're following is what Mr. Gore requested of the courts. What we have we have here is Mr. Gore selectively choosing four counties out of 67 in Florida that he felt he'd have the most chance of overcoming Mr. Bush. So, again, you're using a standard that the courts I believe rejected.
MARK SEIBEL: Well, no one, not President-elect Bush and not the Vice President requested that the overvotes be reviewed. I think there is some interesting information in the overvotes. Don't get me wrong. I think it would be worth looking at them. But in terms of our project, what we are looking at is the votes that were in dispute, and they were under...
TERENCE SMITH: Let me ask Congressman Foley: Are you suggesting that there is really a political motive here, that that's what this is about?
REP. MARK FOLEY: Well, I'm concerned, as I was from the very day this story erupted-- and I was there in Palm Beach County the following morning after the election-- and what I felt was the error of the Gore campaign from day one to ask for a complete hand recount of the entire state. And I believe the court opined that basically it was an equal protection statute that caused them to be concerned about the process.
So yes, I am very concerned if you're only going to look at four counties where Mr. Gore won by large margins. Again, we have other states that have huge undervotes. We're not talking about those because he was the victor in those states. Only in the counties where he I think won significantly over Mr. Bush are we now starting to examine these ballots. And I just felt from day one if we looked at 67 counties, I wouldn't be as uncomfortable as I am just looking at a few counties.
TERENCE SMITH: Hal Bruno?
MARK SEIBEL: Can I -
TERENCE SMITH: Let Hal Bruno get in on this.
HAL BRUNO: You've got a conflict between common sense and Florida law. Justice O'Connor pointed out that the standard ought to be the instructions that are on the ballots. And if you have an improperly punched ballot or if you have an overseas ballot that's not signed properly, in most places that would be considered a spoiled ballot and it's thrown out. However, in Florida law, as I understand it, it's the intent of the voter that counts. And right there you have a conflict. What I would like to know is: Is this peculiar to Florida? Do you have this in other states? Is this a national problem?
TERENCE SMITH: Well, Judge... let me ask judge Burton one point, which is: Do you think, after what you've gone through, that this kind of examination can become the basis for reform of a system that I think everybody recognizes is flawed?
JUDGE CHARLES BURTON: Well, I absolutely think it could become the basis for reform because... And I don't really see the harm in going back, as everyone's been talking about, and taking a look at these ballots. Nobody's trying to convince anybody that the wrong person was elected or the wrong person is now serving. It's simply I think a really good educational process for an awful lot of people. I don't see anything other than good coming from this, quite honestly, because you know, people in this election, for whatever reason, are going to feel they were cheated. And I think it's helpful to go in, to take a look, to have an independent group look at all of these counties and try and come up with some determination.
|All 67 counties|
TERENCE SMITH: Okay, Mark Seibel, you've been trying to get in here. Go ahead.
MARK SEIBEL: I just wanted to correct one thing. Congressman Foley talked about the four counties. You know, our intention is to look at all 67 counties. And I think that's been very clear, that our effort is to look at undervotes not just in counties that Al Gore won, but in...undervotes in all the counties, including those counties that George Bush carried by substantial margins. Here again, what we are trying to do is take our lead from something that came out in the court case and then just follow through and see if it would have made any difference, and what those ballots can tell us because we made a very important public policy decision in a very quick fashion, and I think it behooves us to examine the evidence to see whether the correct decision was made and whether the right procedures were followed. And it's not a dead matter in Florida. Our legislature is going to rewrite election law, and we're going to have new voting processes, and all of that sort of thing, and so it's very much a real issue, a live issue in Florida.
REP. MARK FOLEY: Is it the intention to announce...
TERENCE SMITH: Congressman Foley, a final word? All 67 counties, he says.
REP. MARK FOLEY: Well, I just want to know if the intention is to announce the results that they find. That's the bottom line. I think Judge Burton even expressed some concern with that process. Are you planning to announce what you believe would have been the results of your election by doing your hand recounting?
MARK SEIBEL: I don't know what we're going to be able to announce. We will go through the documents, the ballots and look at it and then at the end, I mean we will publish something, but what we will publish we won't know till we've looked at the evidence.
REP. MARK FOLEY: And you'll do all 67 counties and every vote before you make that announcement?
MARK SEIBEL: Oh, yes, correct.
HAL BRUNO: They will have done a great public service and George Bush will still be the president of the United States, regardless.
TERENCE SMITH: All right, gentlemen, I think it shows there's a little heat still in this argument. Thank you very much.
HAL BRUNO: Thank you.
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