The media moves in

As the press begins to recount ballots in Florida, the Republicans cry foul.

Topics: 2000 Elections,

If you thought the controversy over Florida’s contested vote count was laid to rest this week with President-elect George W. Bush’s bipartisan tour of Washington, think again. With media organizations lined up in Florida to review 45,000 disputed ballots, the press’s unique post-election project may bedevil Bush and Republicans for weeks or even months to come.

For instance, on Tuesday the Orlando Sentinel reported that its review of invalidated ballots in nearby Lake County — where Bush beat Gore by 15 percent — showed that if voter intent had been the guiding principle in judging ballots, Vice President Al Gore would have picked up a net gain of 130 votes there. Bush won Florida by just 537 votes.

The county used optical scanners to count votes, so the ballot review did not hinge on questions of dimples or chads. But Republicans’ reaction to the story was every bit as hostile as their reaction to the manual counting of punch card ballots, which Republicans continually said were not made to be inspected by hand.

Bush spokesman Tucker Eskew accused the Sentinel of “mischief making,” “inflaming public passions” and “misleading the public” by publishing “illegal votes.” Florida Gov. Jeb Bush weighed in as well, questioning the wisdom of news organizations trying to “rewrite history.”

News chiefs insist they’re not trying to rewrite history, but instead simply inspecting government documents. In this case, they’re categorizing the types of disputed ballots — hanging chads, clear dimples, slight dimples — and letting readers reach their own conclusions. “We see this as a review, as opposed to a recount,” says Mark Seibel, assistant managing editor for the Miami Herald, which plans to count undervotes in all 67 counties. “We’re not in the ballot-counting business.”

Still, the unprecedented undertaking is likely to stir passions as the slow-moving review process unfolds through the winter months.

The endeavor all comes courtesy of Florida’s extraordinarily liberal “sunshine laws,” which grant access to government documents and procedures. In a state where residents can sift through officials’ e-mails and phone messages, as well as attend the governor’s Cabinet meetings, the idea of inspecting election ballots is not that unusual. “It was natural to look at them,” says Richard Shelton, president of the Florida Press Association. “It was just something that was going to be done here.” (The recent suggestion by presumptive Bush appointee and New Jersey Gov. Christie Todd Whitman that the ballots be sealed for 10 years no doubt produced a few quizzical looks among Floridians accustomed to open government.)

The real question was how the 67-county review was going to be done. Attempts to pool resources and create a broad news consortium to include, among others, the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, the Wall Street Journal, Associated Press, the Chicago Tribune, the Miami Herald, the Palm Beach Post and the Orlando Sentinel have proven tricky.

Last Saturday the Miami Herald decided to opt out of any consortium and go it alone. “We came to the conclusion that we could be more flexible and nimble on our own, that we had the resources, we had the methodology lined up, we were ready to go and the story was in our backyard,” says the paper’s executive editor Martin Baron. He estimates the paper and its parent company Knight-Ridder will spend “hundreds of thousands of dollars” executing the statewide review.

Baron says he was also uncomfortable with the notion that “The Media” would come up with a single review tally. While he acknowledges one consistent number might “have the greatest credibility,” it ignores the fact that news organizations “are all independent entities that make their own decisions.” (Of course, coming off the Voter News Service election fiasco, in which news outlets consolidated their exit polling duties and drew from the same contaminated data pool, perhaps it is best the media not team up for the ballot review.)

As for the remaining organization, any sort of consortium has yet to take hold. “If it exists, it’s more of a loose confederation,” notes one Florida newspaper person. For instance, when a review began of Broward County’s 6,700 disputed punch-card votes on Monday, nearly a dozen outlets had their own representatives at a table examining ballots as a local election official held them up one by one.

With so many eyeballs needing a look-see, the pace was excruciatingly slow. Fewer than 900 ballots were reviewed in two days. “At that rate we’d have a very nice anniversary story for next November,” quips Seibel. By contrast, the Orlando Sentinel was able to complete its review of Lake County quickly because there were far fewer invalidated votes there, and an optical scanning system eliminated most of the guesswork.

That slow pace doesn’t mean it will take months to get a sense of the vote, though, since the Herald, and perhaps others, will be writing about the review as it progresses. “We are not going to have a running tally on all the counties,” says Baron. “But in Miami-Dade, for instance, the issue was, according to the Gore side, if they had continued the manual counting there it could have changed the election. We feel it might be worth our while to do something as soon as we know the answer to that question.”

But are news outlets the best ones to undertake this project in the first place? “The press is an imperfect vehicle, but the governmental and judicial processes have been imperfect, too,” says Bob Steele, director of the ethics program at the Poynter Institute, a school for working journalists. “News organizations, as long as they reveal their methodology and are straightforward in explaining why they’ve done this, have an obligation to hold the governmental process and elected officials accountable. That includes examining how well the system worked or failed.”

But Shelton at the Florida Press Association says it may be wise to include an independent, nonpartisan outside group like the League of Women Voters or Common Cause to join the recount to add an additional measure of credibility to the process. (The conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch is participating, but few consider it to be nonpartisan.)

Baron has gone out of his way to try to insulate the Herald from criticism. In his recently published, 400-word letter to readers explaining the ballot review process, Baron mentioned the name of the accounting firm the paper has hired no less than seven times. “It’s not our judgment being applied,” he notes in a follow-up interview. “It’s the observations of people independently hired to observe the ballots, to record what they see, to tabulate the results, and then turn them over to us.”

With the stakes so high, it’s no surprise the advance faultfinding has already begun. Even before a single ballot was reviewed, conservative Wall Street Journal columnist John Fund dismissed the procedure as a “juvenile scavenger hunt,” which is ironic since Wall Street Journal reporters are among those committed to spending weeks inspecting Florida ballots. Of course conservative pundits were already irked by the Herald when it ran a statistical analysis piece in late November that suggested if the voting process in Florida had been flawless, Gore would have won by 23,000 votes.

“I think I understand their endgame,” says Seibel of the Herald’s critics. “They want to discredit any recount. But to criticize it in advance shows the weakness of their argument. How can you have satisfying debate without the information? People recognize it for what it is: spin.”

And Seibel notes people may be jumping to the wrong conclusion. “There’s an assumption on the part of Republicans and some Democrats that the vote review will absolutely show that Al Gore won. We don’t know that.”

Still, skeptics are busy planting seeds of doubt, arguing, for instance, that in order to conduct a fair review, news organizations should also inspect the overvote ballots, which registered more than one choice for president and were automatically invalidated. As former Democratic pollster and constant Gore critic Pat Caddell recently complained on CNN, “In the optical counties, particularly those where people use the optical scans and they’re taken to a central location, those counties produced about 18,000 overvotes. But in many cases, they are mismarked ballots. They are people who both wrote in a candidate as well as voted for them.” Caddell argued an inspection of those overvote ballots would produce a windfall of votes for Bush.

But in Lake County, the Orlando Sentinel proved just the opposite to be true. Lake used an optical scanning system and voted heavily for Bush, and, as Caddell predicted, featured a number of invalidated ballots containing both a filled-in oval as well as a corresponding write-in name. Yet of those 622 discarded overvote ballots, 246 were for Bush, 376 for Gore; a net gain of 130 for the vice president.

After findings like that, Bush may be relieved to know that the Miami Herald is not planning to review overvotes statewide (although the New York Times may) because they were never contested in court. “All we’re trying to do,” says Seibel, “is establish if the Florida Supreme Court’s order to recount undervotes in the entire state had not been stayed by the United States Supreme Court, could we tell what the results might have been?”

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>