"In 2001 painstaking postmortems of the Florida count, one by The New York Times and another by a consortium of newspapers, concluded that Mr. Bush would have come out slightly ahead, even if all the votes counted throughout the state had been retallied." Alessandra Stanley, New York Times, May 23, 2008 in a review of the HBO television movie, Recount
That's not true. The New York Times did not do its own recount. It did participate in a consortium. Here's what they actually said: "If all the ballots had been reviewed under any of seven single standards, and combined with the results of an examination of overvotes, Mr. Gore would have won, by a very narrow margin." Ford Fessenden And John M. Broder New York Times, November 12, 2001
Why did Ms. Stanley make such an important and fundamental error?
It is not a trivial matter. It is a common piece of misinformation. Many, many people believe it. Now a few more do, as a result of Ms. Stanley's review. It is not a trivial matter. Because that misinformation was created by one of the most bizarre, and still completely unexplained, journalistic events in modern times. Here's what happened. George Bush appeared to have won Florida, and therefore the presidency. The law in Florida was actually quite simple and direct:
ƒ(4) If the returns for any office reflect that a candidate was defeated or eliminated by one-half of a percent or less of the votes cast for such office, ... the board responsible for certifying the results of the vote on such race or measure shall order a recount of the votes cast with respect to such office or measure.
That is one of the simplest and most clearly written bits of legislation I've ever seen anywhere. The Florida court thought so too and ordered a recount. Then the United States Supreme Court stepped in and shut the recounts down. Bush was left as the victor and became the president. But, presumably, the whole world wanted to know who actually did get the most votes. It would make a great and important story. But getting the truth was too time consuming and expensive for any single news organization, so a consortium was formed. It consisted of The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, The Tribune Company, The Washington Post, The Associated Press, The St. Petersburg Times, The Palm Beach Post and CNN. It took almost a year and cost over a million dollars. All the news organizations had the same information: Al Gore got more legal, countable votes than George Bush. Here are the headlines:
The New York Times: "STUDY OF DISPUTED FLORIDA BALLOTS FINDS JUSTICES DID NOT CAST THE DECIDING VOTE."
The Wall Street Journal: "IN ELECTION REVIEW, BUSH WINS WITHOUT SUPREME COURT HELP,"
Los Angeles Times: "BUSH STILL HAD VOTES TO WIN IN A RECOUNT, STUDY FINDS."
The Washington Post: "FLORIDA RECOUNTS WOULD HAVE FAVORED BUSH" CNN.com: "FLORIDA RECOUNT STUDY: BUSH STILL WINS."
The St. Petersburg Times: "RECOUNT: BUSH."
If you were still interested, after the headlines, and bothered to read the stories, it didn't get much better. I read it in the New York Times. Frankly, I missed the key paragraph, until I saw it pointed out in an article by Gore Vidal. I subsequently went back and read all the stories. The Times was the worst in terms of active misdirection. They spent the first three paragraphs supporting the headline and they explicitly stated that Bush would have won even with a statewide recount. Finally, in the fourth paragraph -- if you got that far -- was the statement quoted above:
"If all the ballots had been reviewed under any of seven single standards, and combined with the results of an examination of overvotes, Mr. Gore would have won, by a very narrow margin."
There it was. A very simple statement. Al Gore got more votes in Florida than George Bush. It is also very well buried. It had arcania about chads on both sides of it. Even so, as if in a panic to make sure that nobody might think that it mattered that Al Gore got more votes than George Bush, the Times dismissed what the Consortium had spent a million dollars to find out: "While these are fascinating findings, they do not represent a real-world situation. There was no set of circumstances in the fevered days after the election that would have produced a hand recount of all 175,000 overvotes and undervotes." Even though that would seem to be a fairly obvious interpretation of the law and it is what was found when someone actually did sit down and count the votes.
The rest of the story, another four paragraphs, detailed a variety of other possible recounts, all partial recounts -- these counties, but not those counties - that the Gore lawyers or the Bush lawyers asked for at various times. Bush would have won all of those variations, he just didn't get the most votes in Florida. Not that the all variations mattered much. The Florida court had ordered a state wide hand recount.
The news story spinners hung their hat on a technicality.
Florida law, as affirmed by the courts, says a vote most be counted if there is "a clear indication of the intent of the voter."When the questions and lawsuits started, they were about undervotes. An undervote is when a voter has tried to vote but for some reason the counting machines fail to accept it. The most common cause, in Florida, which used a punch system, was that the punching device did not make a clear hole in the voting card. The piece of paper that was supposed to be knocked out, a chad, was hanging, or only broken on two corners, or merely dented. While the machines couldn't discern the "intent of the voter," the human eye often could. So we had the spectacle, and the jokes, about "hanging chads," as the recounts began. If only the undervotes were counted, by some standards of judging them, then Bush would have won.
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