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George W. Bush now appears to have claimed the most powerful office in the world by blocking a court-ordered recount of votes in Florida that likely would have elected Al Gore to be president of the United States.
A document, revealed by Newsweek, indicates that the Florida recount that was stopped last year by five Republicans on the U.S. Supreme Court would have taken into account so-called “overvotes” that heavily favored Gore.
If those “overvotes” were counted, as now it appears they would have been, Gore would have carried Florida regardless of what standard of chad – dimpled, hanging, punched-through – was used in counting the so-called “undervotes,” according to an examination of those ballots by a group of leading news organizations.
In other words, Bush lost not only the national popular vote by more than a half million ballots, but he would have lost the key state of Florida and thus the presidency, if Florida’s authorities had been allowed to count the votes that met the state’s legal requirement of demonstrating the clear intent of the voter.
The Newsweek disclosure – a memo that the presiding judge in the state recount sent to a county canvassing board – shows that the judge was instructing the county boards to collect “overvotes” that had been rejected for indicating two choices for president when, in reality, the voters had made clear their one choice.
“If you would segregate ‘overvotes’ as you describe and indicate in your final report how many where you determined the clear intent of the voter,” wrote Judge Terry Lewis, who had been named by the Florida Supreme Court to oversee the statewide recount, “I will rule on the issue for all counties.”
Lewis’s memo to the chairman of the Charlotte County canvassing board was written on Dec. 9, 2000, just hours before Bush succeeded in getting five conservative justices on the U.S. Supreme Court to stop the Florida recount.
Lewis has said in more recent interviews that he might well have expanded the recount to include those “overvotes.” Indeed, it would be hard to imagine that he wouldn’t count those legitimate votes once they were recovered by the counties and were submitted to Lewis.
The “overvotes” in which voters marked the name of their choice and also wrote in his name would be even more clearly legal votes than the so-called “undervotes” which were kicked out for failing to register a choice that could be read by voting machines.
This new information indicating that the wrong presidential candidate moved into the White House also makes a mockery of the Nov. 12 front-page stories of the New York Times, the Washington Post and other leading news outlets, which stated that Bush would have won regardless of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling.
Those stories were based on the hypothetical results if the state-ordered recount had looked only at “undervotes.” The news organizations assumed, incorrectly it now appears, that the “overvotes” would have been excluded from such a tally, leaving Bush with a tiny lead.
In going with the “Bush Wins” headlines, the news organizations downplayed their more dramatic finding that Gore would have won if a full statewide recount had been conducted in accordance with state law. Using the clear-intent-of-the-voter standard, Gore beat Bush by margins ranging from 60 to 171 votes, depending on what standard was used in judging the “undervotes.”
Beyond the big newspapers’ false assumptions about the state recount, the news stories showed a pro-Bush bias in their choice of language and the overall slant of the articles.
The New York Times, for instance, used the word “would” and even declarative statements when referring to Bush prevailing in hypothetical partial recounts. By contrast, the word “might” was used when mentioning that Gore topped Bush if all ballots were considered.
“A comprehensive review of the uncounted Florida ballots,” the Times wrote, “reveal that George W. Bush would have won even if the United States Supreme Court had allowed the statewide manual recount of the votes that the Florida Supreme Court had ordered to go forward. Contrary to what many partisans of former Vice President Al Gore have charged, the United State Supreme Court did not award an election to Mr. Bush that otherwise would have been won by Mr. Gore.”
Two paragraphs later, the Times noted that the examination of all rejected ballots “found that Mr. Gore might have won if the courts had ordered a full statewide recount. … The findings indicate that Mr. Gore might have eked out a victory if he had pursued in court a course like the one he publicly advocated when he called on the state to ‘count all the votes.’”
Left out of that formulation, which suggests that Gore was a hypocrite, is the fact that Bush rejected Gore’s early proposal for a full statewide recount. Bush also waged a relentless campaign of obstruction that left no time for the state courts to address the equal-protection-under-the-law concerns raised by the U.S. Supreme Court in its final ruling on Dec. 12, 2000.
Note also how the Times denigrates as misguided Gore “partisans” those American citizens who concluded, apparently correctly, that the U.S. Supreme Court awarded the election to Bush.
The headlines, too, favored Bush. The Times’ front-page headline on Nov. 12 read, “Study of Disputed Florida Ballots Finds Justices Did Not Cast the Deciding Vote.” The Washington Post’s headline read, “Florida Recounts Would Have Favored Bush.”
The pro-Bush themes in the headlines and stories were repeated over and over by television and other newspapers, creating a widespread belief among casual news consumers that Bush had prevailed in the full statewide recount, rather than only in truncated recounts based on dubious hypotheses.
Now, Judge Lewis’s memo undercuts both the tone and the content of those news reports. It is certainly not clear anymore that the state-ordered recount would have favored Bush. It also appears likely that the interference by the U.S. Supreme Court was decisive. Based on the new evidence, the major newspapers look to be wrong on both these high-profile points.
Beyond Gore’s narrow victory from the recoverable ballots, the news organizations concluded – but played down – that Gore lost thousands of unrecoverable ballots because of flawed ballot designs in several Democratic strongholds. Gore lost other votes because Gov. Jeb Bush’s administration disqualified hundreds of predominantly black voters who were falsely labeled felons.
The New York Times also reported that Bush achieved a net gain of about 290 votes by getting illegally cast absentee votes counted in Republican counties while enforcing the rules strictly in Democratic counties. Though the new recount tallies did not include any adjustments for these irregularities, the news organizations estimated that Gore lost tens of thousands of votes from these disparities, compared to Bush’s official victory margin of 537 votes.
For months, the leading news organizations have been bending over backwards to protect Bush’s fragile legitimacy, possibly out of concern for the nation’s image in a time of crisis. Yet, whatever the motivation for trying to make Bush look good, the evidence is now overwhelming that Bush strong-armed his way, illegitimately, to the presidency.
In the days immediately after the election, Bush obstructed a full-and-fair recount in Florida, even dispatching hooligans from outside the state to intimidate vote counters. When Gore pressed for recounts in the courts, Bush sent in lawyers to prevent the tallies. Then, after losing before the Florida Supreme Court and the federal appeals court, Bush ultimately got a friendly hearing from five political allies on the U.S. Supreme Court.
If Bush truly respected the precepts of democracy and what those principles mean to the world, he could have joined Gore in demanding as full and fair a Florida recount as possible. He could have accepted the results, win or lose.
Instead Bush opted for the opposite course, deciding that his getting the White House was more important than the voters having their judgment accepted, both nationally and in Florida. By refusing to hold Bush accountable for his key role in thwarting the voters’ will, the major news organizations are not doing the cause of democracy any service.
It turns out that the thousands of demonstrators who protested Bush’s Inauguration were closer to the truth when they shouted at his motorcade, “Hail to the Thief!”