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President Jackass

It’s becoming clear just how solidly George W. Bush lost the election in Florida. The media‘s ongoing examination of Florida ballots last week increased Al Gore’s edge in the popular vote.

Among the findings:

lThe Chicago Tribune and its Florida newspapers studied more than 15,000 ballots that elections officials in 15 small counties had said lacked a presidential pick. The paper easily determined the voters‘ choice on 1,700 of the ballots. The ballots would have given Gore a net gain of 366 votes -- wiping out the 154-vote Bush margin established by the Florida Supreme Court, and canceling two-thirds of the statewide 537-vote Bush margin certified by Katherine Harris and finally sustained by the 5-4 Supreme Court decision.

lThe Palm Beach Post examined thousands of dimpled ballots from Palm Beach County. The ballots had been set aside by the canvassing board for court review. By the newspaper’s count, Gore would have picked up 682 votes. This Democratic dividend would have eliminated Bush‘s cushion under the standard of either court’s calculation.

lThe Palm Beach Post also found that Bush would have received six more votes if 10,600 rejected punch-card ballots had been tallied in Miami-Dade County. The Democrats in December had expected to uncover hundreds of Gore ballots, but found fewer than 500 discernible votes.

lThe Miami Herald reported the findings of a U.C. Irvine professor who concluded that about 1,700 Miami-Dade ballots had been invalidated because of misalignment between card and ballot holder. If properly aligned, these cards would have given Gore 316 more votes than Bush, Irvine political scientist Anthony Salvanto said.

As data comes in from an array of jurisdictions using different voting machinery and varying ballot formats, some tentative conclusions can be drawn about the causes of bad ballots. To hardly anyone‘s surprise, spreading presidential candidates’ names across two pages tended to confuse voters, leading some to cancel out their actual preference with a vote for a minor-party candidate on the second page. In Duval County, where voters were wrongly advised in sample ballots to “vote on every page,” more than 20,000 “overvotes” were recorded.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the punch-card system -- hanging chads and all -- was not the worst offender in disenfranchising Floridians. The proportion of void ballots was even higher in counties using optical scanners without reading machines at the precinct, research by the Orlando Sentinel shows. Tabulating machines were generally unable to discern votes cast by pen or marker (instead of the prescribed pencils) and often counted a mark the voter had made every effort to erase.

And some literal-minded voters mistakenly thought the phrase “write-in candidate” was an order to spell out their candidate‘s name. The scanners rejected such ballots as overvotes.

The bottom line on the state’s count is still to be revealed. Under the sponsorship of a broad consortium of media -- including CNN, the Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles TimesTribune Publishing and the Associated Press -- the National Opinion Research Center continues to inspect all 180,000 rejected Florida ballots. The Miami Herald expects to complete its separate examination of the state‘s “undervotes” later this month.

Results to date tend to sustain the claim of Democratic National Committee chair Joe Andrew that “If all the votes [are] counted, Al Gore wins the presidency.”

Though the state Republican Party has had observers on hand for the media-sponsored counts, GOP officials have taken issue with the results. “To somehow suggest that a ballot that is dimpled provides us some sort of [look] into a voter’s mind is ridiculous,” GOP spokesman Ken Lisaius told the Palm Beach Post. The Rehnquist-Scalia-Thomas opinion, he added, points out that voters must follow directions.

Another critic of the process is a Democrat who has been in the eye of the electoral storm since the first Tuesday in November -- Palm Beach Supervisor of Elections Theresa Le Pore. “You got different people looking at different criteria there,” Le Pore told the Post. “Some are not even looking at the cards. They‘re yawning, talking on cell phones. I think it’s unfair to put out any numbers that are inaccurate.”

But Le Pore herself has now come under attack from an unexpected quarter -- her predecessor in the office, Jackie Winchester. “Just about every decision she made favored Bush,” said Winchester, a fervent Gore supporter. If Le Pore had followed the office‘s previously established recount guidelines, she suggested, Republican count observers would have had fewer chances to make the frivolous challenges that overwhelmed the canvassing board and stopped it from meeting the court-imposed November 26 deadline to complete the count. Instead of focusing on apparent undervotes and overvotes, as the guidelines prescribed, “Theresa had the counters going over every ballot,” Winchester told the Post. “They wasted so much time.”

Le Pore said she decided to go beyond the written instructions because “This was an abnormal situation.”

Despite all the evidence, there is no sign Stupid George plans to yield to the public will and move out of the White House anytime soon.


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