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So let's get this straight. If all of Florida's "undervotes" are counted and a standard of "clear intent of the voter" is applied – including perforated ballots and those with indentations in more than one race, indicating a malfunctioning voting machine – Al Gore won the state by 299 votes.
If a more liberal standard – counting all ballots with an indentation only on the presidential race – Gore's victory margin increases to 393 votes.
In a different age, the Miami Herald's lead might have been:
"Gore won Florida if all undervotes are counted."
Or the newspaper might have written a two-part lead also noting that George W. Bush would have prevailed if stricter standards were applied to the undervotes, requiring that the so-called chads were partially or completely removed.
Another reasonable lead to the story would be that the Florida election – when various irregularities such as the "butterfly ballot" are ignored – was a virtual dead heat.
Instead, the Herald and its partner in this unofficial recount, USA Today, focused on the election outcome that would have occurred if one first subtracted the extra votes that Gore got in Palm, Broward and Volusia counties and in 139 precincts in Miami-Dade County.
After subtracting those counties and precincts, the newspapers hailed a Bush victory by a supposed 1,665 votes, a tally reached by applying the most liberal standard for undervotes, the appearance of a single indentation.
Why the newspapers picked this contorted approach as their story lead is a bit murky. But the newspapers made clear that any contrary analysis -- that Gore would had won if similar counting standards were applied statewide -- was left to the domain of those deemed "Gore's supporters."
The full statewide results of this recount – what the voters actually wanted – are not addressed until the 44th paragraph of the Miami Herald story. That's where a reader finds out that if the liberal ballot standards were applied statewide – or even if somewhat more conservative standards were used – Gore would have won.
The stated reasoning for this odd decision to bury what would seem to be the natural lead – Gore's apparent victory – was that the Florida Supreme Court supposedly exempted those three counties and 139 precincts from additional recounts when the court ruled on Dec. 8 that hand tallies already done would be included in the statewide totals.
In other words, the two newspapers focused not on the will of the Florida voters but on how the state court's last-minute efforts to allow a balanced state recount might have ended if Bush's lawyers had not rushed to the U.S. Supreme Court and stopped the recount.
One of several problems with this reasoning is that the key issue in any election should be the will of the voters, not the quirks of a legal battle.
Already other findings have shown that the confusing "butterfly ballots" in Palm Beach and improper ballot purges by Gov. Jeb Bush's administration cost Gore thousands of votes that would have made him the clear winner in the state.
There are also the so-called "overvotes" – ballots where a voter both punched a hole in a ballot and wrote in the name of the candidate. They are being reviewed by another group of newspapers. ("Undervotes" are ballots kicked out by machine counters as showing no vote for president.)
Troubling News Judgment
But possibly even more troubling in the Miami Herald's news judgment is that the newspaper effectively rewards George W. Bush, again, for his determined effort to frustrate a full and accurate count of Florida's ballots.
If Bush had agreed early on to accept Gore's offer of a statewide recount, state officials would have had time to fashion a reasonable remedy that would have avoided many of the discrepancies in county-by-county standards.
Such a remedy was the clear goal of the Florida Supreme Court when it ruled on Dec. 8 that all 67 counties – not just the ones in South Florida – should examine their undervotes. Obvious votes that had been missed by the counting machines were to be added into the totals. Disputed ballots were to be left to the state courts for a final decision.
Contrary to the Miami Herald story, the Florida Supreme Court's ruling did not exempt Palm, Broward and Volusia counties from this effort to achieve a reasonably consistent statewide standard. The court's ruling stated:
"Only by examining the contested ballots, which are evidence in the election contest, can a meaningful and final determination in this election contest be made. … In addition to the relief requested by appellants (Gore's side) to count the Miami-Dade undervote, claims have been made by the various appellees and intervenors (other parties interested in the case) that because this is a statewide election, statewide remedies would be called for.
"As we discussed in this opinion, we agree. While we recognize that time is desperately short, we cannot in good faith ignore the appellants' right to relief as to their claims concerning the uncounted votes in Miami-Dade county, nor can we ignore the correctness of the assertions that any analysis and ultimate remedy should be made on a statewide basis." [Emphasis added.]
The Florida Supreme Court left wide discretion on how to manage the recount and how to achieve some uniformity in standards to a circuit court judge.
"The circuit court is directed to enter such orders as are necessary to add any legal votes to the total statewide certifications and to enter any orders necessary … in tabulating the ballots and in making a determination of what is a `legal' vote, the standard to be employed is that established by the Legislature in our election code which is that the vote shall be counted as a 'legal' vote if there is 'clear indication of the intent of the voter'," the ruling stated. [For the full ruling, see www.flcourts.org]
But the next day, Dec. 9, as the statewide recount was underway, Bush's lawyers raced to Washington and got five Republican justices on the U.S. Supreme Court to halt the vote counting to protect Bush from the "irreparable harm" that he might have suffered if the count went against him.
On Dec. 12, the same five justices overturned the state court's effort to achieve a balanced recount, effectively handing the White House to George W. Bush, who had already lost the national popular vote by more than a half million votes, but eked ahead in the Electoral College with Florida's 25 electoral votes.
Now, with the handling of this unofficial recount, the Miami Herald and USA Today have rewarded Bush again for his obstruction of a full and fair tally of Florida's ballots.
Possibly, the newspapers' editors felt that little good would come from highlighting the full statewide results that indicated a Gore victory.
After all, Bush is president and there's no way to alter the official results in Florida, no matter how much those results failed to reflect the will of the state's voters. Plus, the stock markets are falling and the United States is in a confrontation with China, the editors might have felt.
But in crafting the latest recount story as they did, excluding three counties and 139 precincts of a fourth, to make Bush as clear a winner as possible, is just another reward handed to the Bush family.
It is a reward for doing everything possible to thwart the will of the voters in Florida and across the United States.