November 19, 2000
Bush Gained Hand Recounts
By Mollie Dickenson
Twelve days after the presidential election, two key facts seem apparent, jointly indicating that Al Gore was the popular choice for president.
According to the latest CNN figures, Vice President Gore is winning the national popular vote by more than a quarter million ballots, a narrow but clear lead.
Gore also appears to have been the choice of Florida voters, though thousands had their votes not count because they were turned away from the polls, mistakenly punched a hole for Pat Buchanan on an improperly designed ballot, or saw their votes kicked out by vote-counting machines.
Given these twin realities, one might expect the popular-vote loser – Texas Gov. George W. Bush – to bend over backwards to assure that the Florida outcome enhances whatever legitimacy he might bring with him if he "wins" the White House through the Electoral College.
The honorable thing would be to make sure Gore's supporters have every chance to compensate for the series of mishaps and abuses that occurred in the state governed by Bush's brother and run by his brother's cronies.
Instead, the opposite has happened. For the past 10 days, George W. Bush and allies of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush have blocked Florida's southeastern – largely Democratic – counties from hand recounting their ballots until a deadline had passed for adding them to the total.
This occurred although Bush himself received at least 418 hand-counted ballots primarily from Republican counties. Those hand-counted results made it possible for Bush to remain continuously in the lead by a margin that began at 1,784 and, publicly at least, went as low as 225 votes.
On the basis of those slim and changing margins, the nation's pundits called upon Al Gore to concede Florida's 25 electoral votes and thus the presidency to Bush, despite widely reported voting irregularities involving tens of thousands of ballots.
The Orlando Sentinel, for instance, reported that over 180,000 ballots had been kicked out of Florida's computerized counting machines. According to The Washington Post, 11 of Florida's 67 counties did not even conduct machine recounts, a process that had found Gore's statewide total undercounted by more than 1,400 votes.
When the Democrats exercised their right to request a manual recount in three counties – Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach – the Republicans sought to block those recounts through state edict and a federal court challenge.
The Bush campaign sued in federal district court to stop hand counting. Failing there, the campaign went to the very conservative federal court of appeals in Atlanta, where the campaign was rebuffed again.
Secretary of State
On the state front, Secretary of State Katherine Harris, a co-chair of the Bush campaign in Florida, issued an edict on Nov. 14 ordering the hand-counters to cease. That move was countermanded by Florida's Attorney General, Bob Butterworth, a Democrat.
Still, the delays and confusion left no manual recount from those three counties finished at a deadline of 5 p.m., Nov. 14, set by Harris.
At that point, Harris certified Bush's 300-vote lead as the official result, pending overseas absentee ballots. She also demanded that the Democratic counties submit in writing their justifications for doing hand recounts by 2 p.m. the next day.
After receiving the explanations, Harris promptly rejected the reasoning. She declared that she was exercising her legally sanctioned "discretion" and would exclude late-arriving hand-counted votes from the southern counties from the certified total. Only overseas absentee ballots, received after Election Day and expected to favor Bush, would be allowed.
Referring to the obstacles placed in the way of the hand recounts, a Gore lawyer said it was like a policeman forcing a motorist to pull over, then blaming him for the traffic piling up behind him.
For its part, the Bush campaign was showing no humility over losing the national vote and benefiting from voting irregularities in Florida.
Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes accused the Democratic counties of "no longer counting ballots; they are ‘reinventing' them." Her comment was an obvious slap at Gore's supposed character flaws, based in part on the famous media misquote of Gore's mythical claim to have "invented the Internet."
James Baker III, a senior adviser to former President George H.W. Bush and now to his son, accused the hand counters from the three counties of "subjective" attempts to "divine the intent of the voter." The Bush family's consigliere added that hand-counted votes present "tremendous opportunities for human error and ... mischief."
Democrats called Baker's statements hypocritical, pointing out that six mostly Republican counties have partially hand counted their ballots and found 418 additional votes for Bush. (Those counties are: Franklin, Hamilton, Seminole, Washington, Taylor, and Lafayette.)
If hand-counted votes were so suspect, Democrats said, why not remove them from Bush's count? The answer seemed to be that doing so would have put Gore ahead, at least temporarily.
Baker's Democratic counterpart, former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, said the fact that "Republicans have hand counted in many of the counties themselves" belied Republican charges that "we have picked out a certain few counties."
When a reporter asked Bush spokeswoman Hughes if Bush would accept his hand-counted votes, she did not respond, and ended the press conference. Likewise, Baker avoided a reporter's question about the Bush hand-counted tally saying, "Some hand counting was done from which we benefited," whereupon he ended his press conference.
Indeed, Bush has accepted 418 hand-counted votes as part of his total, as well as 143 hand-counted votes from Volusia County, and probably many others tallied before Secretary of State Harris's deadline.
Despite hand-wringing from the punditocracy over the hand recounts in strongly Democratic counties, there have been few reports in the major media about the manual recounts in Republican-dominated counties and how and why they were conducted.
With Bush hoping to claim the presidency with an announcement by Harris on Nov. 18, the battle raged over the three Democratic counties.
Despite the obstacles, Broward pressed ahead with its count. Palm Beach and Miami-Dade, however, waited for the Florida State Supreme Court's decision on Nov. 16, giving them the go-ahead.
Harris petitioned the state Supreme Court to stop the hand counting, saying it was being done without "coherent standards" and threatened "the integrity of the ballots." She didn't say whether those concerns applied to Bush's hand-counted ballots. The court rejected her petition without comment.
Still, the Bush drive to discredit the hand-counting continued unabated. Bush supporters stepped up attacks on the vote canvassers in Palm Beach County, even alleging that they were committing fraud.
Harris, under heavy fire herself, has said that the outspoken Democratic canvasser, Carol Roberts, should recuse herself. A Republican count watcher in Palm Beach County accused Roberts of corruptly manipulating and over-handling the ballots.
Roberts refused to recuse herself, and denied the charge of corruption. A lawyer who was serving as a Palm Beach Democratic count observer told CNN that any charge of corruption against Roberts was "a lie."
For their part, the Democrats have accused the Bush camp of hypocrisy for decrying hand recounts in Florida after Gov. Bush signed a law endorsing them in Texas.
The Texas Election Code, under "Manual Counting, Chapter 127, Section 127.130," states: "Standards by which to judge votes: At least two corners of chad are detached, light is visible through hole, an indentation on the chad from the stylus or other object is present and indicates a clearly ascertainable intent of the voter to vote, or the chad reflects by other means a clearly ascertainable intent of the voter to vote."
The national press corps has been slow to grasp the game that Bush and his operatives are playing - one of stopping hand counts by Democratic counties, then saying it's too late for those votes to be counted.
Instead, pundits have been advising Gore to step aside and wait until 2004, as though there were no major issues, such as Social Security, Medicare, health care, the environment, etc., at stake.
As the week ended, Harris seemed poised to declare Bush the winner, once the overseas ballots were counted. Then, on Nov. 17, the Florida Supreme Court enjoined Harris from certifying the election totals "until further order from this Court." A hearing was set for Monday.
Bush gained ground from the overseas ballots, with his lead growing to 960 votes, buoying the hopes of the Bush camp that the margin could make any concern about the hand recounts moot.
It was unclear whether a simple hand recount of the three counties could overcome Bush's total. The recount would not address the issues raised by the mistaken Buchanan votes and similar errors that apparently cost Gore thousands of ballots.
Yet, whatever the outcome, Gov. Bush clearly benefited from the psychological edge of having continuously led in Florida, a state that, like the nation as a whole, seems actually to have favored Vice President Gore.
Mollie Dickenson is an investigative reporter based in the Washington, D.C., area.