The media moves in

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

By Eric Boehlert

Published December 22, 2000 10:39AM (EST)

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

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

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2000 Elections