Chads, Scanners And Votes

Bush and Gore shake hands 12-19-00 in a meeting at the vice presidential residence in D.C.
A vote-by-vote review of untallied ballots in the 2000 Florida presidential election indicates George W. Bush would have narrowly prevailed in the partial recounts sought by Al Gore, but Gore might have reversed the outcome - by the barest of margins - had he pursued and gained a complete statewide recount.

Bush eventually won Florida, and thus the White House, by 537 votes out of more than 6 million cast. But questions about the uncounted votes lingered.

Almost a year after that cliffhanger conclusion, a media-sponsored review of the more than 175,000 disputed ballots underscored that the prize of the U.S. presidency came down to an almost unimaginably small number of votes.

The new data also suggests that Gore followed a legal strategy after Election Day that would have led to his defeat even if it had not been rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court. Gore sought a recount of a relatively small portion of the state's disputed ballots while the review indicates his only chance lay in a course he advocated publicly but did not pursue in court - a full statewide recount of all Florida's untallied votes.

"We are a nation of laws and the presidential election of 2000 is over," said Gore Sunday, in a statement. "Right now, our country faces a great challenge as we seek to successfully combat terrorism. I fully support President Bush's efforts to achieve that goal."

Said Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer: "The election was settled a year ago, President Bush won and the voters have long since moved on."

CBS News Political Director Dotty Lynch says either side could have won, depending on how you look at it. She also notes that the study helps bring to light problems in the voting process, which go beyond "chads" - the holes that are punched out of some kinds of ballots - and include scanners used to count votes.

The news organizations that sponsored the recount are The Associated Press, The New York Times, The Palm Beach Post, The St. Petersburg Times, Tribune Publishing, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and CNN. The non-profit National Opinion Research did the actual recount.

The idea behind the recount was to examine as many as possible of the ballots set aside as either undervotes or overvotes. Undervotes involved about 62,000 ballots where voting machines were unable to detect a choice for any presidential candidate, while about 113,000 overvotes were read by machines as possibly containing more than one choice.

Since the legal wrangling focused on how votes were defined, the media-sponsored review did, too, calculating results under different standards - for example, whether to count as votes "hanging chads" on punch-card ballots or ballots marked with an "X" instead of the required filled-in oval on optical scan ballots.

Under any standard that tabulated all disputed votes statewide, Gore erased Bush's advantage and emerged with a tiny lead that ranged from 42 to 171 votes.

Completing two partia recounts that Gore unsuccessfully pursued in court showed Bush maintaining a lead ranging between 225 and 493 votes.

Strikingly, all these outcomes were closer than even the narrow 537 votes of Bush's official victory. With numbers that tiny, experts said it would be impossible to interpret the survey results as definitive.

Under the most inclusive standards, the study showed up to 24,653 potentially salvageable overvotes and undervotes among the 12 presidential candidates who ran in Florida.

Computers were used to sort and tabulate votes, based on varying scenarios raised during the postelection scramble in Florida.

Florida's election saw 6.1 million votes cast, and county figures suggest that more than 176,000 ballots, or 2.9 percent, never made it into the certified totals.

Gore outpolled Bush by 540,000 votes nationwide, but the presidency is decided in the Electoral College. Each candidate desperately needed Florida to win and, at the end of an agonizing Election Night, Bush held a slim lead. "Count all the votes" soon became a Democratic rallying cry; Gore's legal strategy, however, was to pursue a narrower recount.

At first, Gore's attorneys sought a hand recount of all 1.8 million ballots cast in four predominantly Democratic counties. In the following weeks, his team argued for recounts in various other counties.

The Florida Supreme Court ordered a statewide recount of undervotes on Dec. 8 - seemingly a huge Gore victory. But it was stopped the next day by the U.S. Supreme Court and the legal action returned to state courts.

A pivotal moment came Nov. 26, when Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris - saying she was following state law - certified Bush the winner by 537 votes, accepting results from two of the four counties that had proceeded with Gore's recount request.

On Dec. 13, the closest presidential contest in decades finally ended 36 days after Election Day following a 5-4 vote by the U.S. Supreme Court that allowed Harris' certification to stand. Gore accepted the verdict and, with that, Bush won Florida's 25 electoral votes and the presidency.

Gore never did press in court for a full recount, and the strategy he followed to seek the undervotes alone statewide likely would not have benefited him. When the consortium tabulations tried to recreate the partial recounts Gore did pursue, those two scenarios kept Bush ahead:

  • If Gore had been successful in his initial efforts for recounts of all ballots in the predominantly Democratic counties of Miami-Dade, Palm Beach, Broward and Volusia. Bush by 225.
  • If the state Supreme Court-ordered recount on Dec. 9 had not been stopped by the U.S. Supreme Court. The review considered this scenario under two different criteria and either way Bush stayed on top, by either 430 votes or 493.

    In the review of the state's disputed ballots, Gore edged ahead under all the scenarios for counting all undervotes and overvotes statewide:

  • Prevailin standard: County election officials told Florida journalists how they would define votes if required to do a recount and in this scenario the majority standard was imposed statewide. A notable element of this standard was that, in punch-card counties, ballots with at least one corner of a chad detached counted as votes. Result: Gore ahead by 60 votes.
  • Two-corner standard: At least two corners of a chad had to be detached for a punch-card ballot to count. Bush supporters sometimes argued for this. Result: Gore ahead by 105 votes.

    Gore also went out front by 107 votes when counting by the least restrictive standard, something his supporters advocated, and by 115 votes under the most restrictive.

    He took a 171-vote lead when the consortium tried to recreate how each county said it would handle the court-ordered statewide recount, and a 42-vote lead under what is called the Palm Beach standard. That scenario features counting dimpled chads as valid votes if a pattern of dimpled chads exists elsewhere on the same ballot.

    Last spring, The Miami Herald and USA Today, along with several other news organizations, published an accounting of thousands of uncertified ballots. Looking at just undervotes, the group's conclusion was similar to that of the media consortium - that Bush likely would have maintained his lead if a statewide hand-count had been completed. The review of both undervotes and overvotes rendered a split: Bush would stayed ahead under the strictest standards for judging votes, while Gore would have broken on top under the most liberal.

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