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Washington Post's Sloppy Analysis

By Sam Parry
November 12, 2004

The Washington Post and the big media have spoken: Questions about Nov. 2 voting irregularities and George W. Bush’s unusual vote tallies are just the ravings of Internet conspiracy theorists.

In a Nov. 11 story on A2, the Post gave the back of its hand to our story about Bush’s statistically improbable vote totals in Florida and elsewhere. While agreeing with our analysis that Bush pulled off the difficult task of winning more votes in Florida than the number of registered Republicans, the Post accuses us of overlooking the obvious explanation that many independents, “Dixiecrats” and other Democrats voted for Bush.

Mocking us as “spreadsheet-wielding conspiracy theorists,” Post reporters Manuel Roig-Franzia and Dan Keating signaled their determination to put questions about Bush’s victory outside the bounds of responsible debate. Yet, if they hadn’t been so set in this agenda, they might have avoided sloppy mistakes and untrue assertions.

In an example of their slipshod reporting, Roig-Franzia and Keating state that we focused our data analysis on rural counties in Florida. They suggest that Bush’s gains in these rural counties might be explained by the greater appeal of son-of-the-South Al Gore in 2000 than Bostonian John Kerry in 2004.

But we didn’t focus on rural counties in Florida. Rather we looked at the vote tallies statewide and zeroed in on Bush’s performance in the larger, more metropolitan counties of southern and central Florida, where Bush got the vast majority of his new votes over his state totals in 2000.

It was in these large counties where Bush’s new totals compared most surprisingly with new voter registration because Democrats did a much better job in many of these counties of registering new voters. In other words, Bush outperformed Kerry among a relatively smaller ratio of Republicans to Democrats in many of these counties.

Also undermining the Post’s claims, Kerry actually improved on Gore’s total in the smallest 20 counties in Florida by 5,618 votes -- 50,883 votes for Kerry vs. 45,265 for Gore, a 12.5% increase. So, even the Post’s notion that Gore’s Southern heritage made him more attractive to rural Floridians doesn’t fit with the actual results.

Simple Question

We began our analysis of the vote totals with one simple question: Where did Bush earn his new votes? Since one of every nine new Bush voters nationwide came from Florida, we thought this battleground state was a good place to examine county-by-county tallies.

We also didn’t go into the analysis expecting to find statistical oddities. We were open to the possibility that Bush’s totals might have fit within statistical norms.

What we found, however, led us to report that Bush’s vote tallies were statistically improbable – though not impossible. Contrary to the Post’s claim, we did take into account the Dixiecrat element, which is why we didn’t focus on the Bush totals from Florida’s panhandle or the smaller, rural counties.

Our analysis found that of the 13 Florida counties where Bush’s vote total exceeded the number of registered Republicans for the first time, only two were counties with fewer than 100,000 registered voters. In 2000, Bush’s vote total exceeded the number of registered Republicans in 34 counties – not 32 as the Post inaccurately reported – but in 2004, this total shot up to 47 counties.

Rather than a rural surge of support, Bush actually earned more than seven out of 10 new votes in the 20 largest counties in Florida. Many of these counties are either Democratic strongholds – such as Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach – or they are swing counties, such as Orange, Hillsborough, and Duval.

Many of these large counties saw substantially more newly registered Democrats than Republicans. For example, in Orange County, a swing county home to Orlando, Democrats registered twice as many new voters than Republicans in the years since 2000. In Palm Beach and Broward combined, Democrats registered 111,000 new voters compared with fewer than 20,000 new Republicans.

However, in these three counties combined, Bush turned out about 10,000 more new voters than Kerry, a feat made all the more remarkable given that Kerry improved Democratic turnout in these counties by 21 percent.

No Landslide

Historically, increases like those Bush registered throughout Florida and across much of the country occur when there are huge swings in voting patterns caused by national landslides.

In 1972, for instance, Richard Nixon won millions of votes from Democrats who two elections earlier had supported Lyndon Johnson. But in 2004, the Democratic ticket didn’t suffer a hemorrhage of votes, actually turning out about 5 million more voters nationwide than in 2000.

Nor was that the case in Florida. In county after county in Florida, Bush achieved statistically stunning gains even as Kerry more than held his own. Bush earned nearly 35 percent more votes statewide than he did in 2000, which was already a huge surge for Bush over Bob Dole’s 1996 Florida turnout.

Contrary to assertions in the flawed Post article, the most surprising numbers actually don’t come from small rural counties in the state, but rather from large counties, including Orange county (mentioned above), Hillsborough (Tampa), Brevard (Cape Canaveral), Duval (Jacksonville), Polk (next to Orange county), and heavily Democratic Leon (Tallahassee) and Alachua (Gainesville). These are not tiny Dixiecrat counties with longtime registered Democrats who haven’t voted Democratic in years.

Rather, these seven counties have large, diverse populations that collectively saw Bush turn out 1,025,493 votes, exceeding the 946,420 registered Republicans. In these counties, Bush turned out nearly twice as many new votes than the number of newly registered Republicans. In these same counties, Kerry got more than 200,000 new votes, meaning that Bush’s tally can’t be attributed to crossover Democrats.

While Bush’s totals are not statistically impossible, they do raise eyebrows. Our question was: where did these gains come from? We are not claiming that the surprising numbers are evidence of fraud, but we do believe the tallies deserve an honest and independent review.

It also should be the job of journalists to probe questions as significant as the integrity of the U.S. voting system, not to simply belittle those who raise legitimate questions. The fact that Internet journals and blogs are doing more to examine these concerns than wealthy news organizations like the Washington Post is another indictment of the nation’s mainstream press.


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