What if they hijacked an election, and no one cared?

Despite the media's spin, the latest recount shows the wrong man was awarded Florida's presidential vote. But if even Al Gore can't bother to complain, why should anyone else?

Published November 14, 2001 10:09PM (EST)

Last December, in the throes of the post-election fight, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., flew down to Tallahassee, Fla. There he warned the public that the state's open-government sunshine laws meant that eventually the media would be able to conduct a full recount of all the 175,000 unread ballots in the state -- even if the courts and the Legislature blocked it.

"There will be an accurate count," Daschle said, adding that it would be "tragic" if we only learned who really won months later, from the media, when it no longer counted.

Nearly a year and almost $1 million later, the media consortium that reviewed all the Florida ballots finally produced results indicating that, for whatever reason -- whether voter screw-ups, vast and sundry conspiracies or just simple fate -- the will of a plurality of voters in the Sunshine State was thwarted last year. "The media recount confirms what many of us have believed for a long time," says Ron Klain, who headed the Gore team's legal effort last year. "If you count all the legal ballots in Florida, Al Gore won."

But Klain is one of the few talking about the matter; Daschle has had nothing to say about the media recount now that it's a reality. With President Bush experiencing approval ratings near 90 percent and the nation in crisis, few have had anything to say.

The media consortium even held off a few weeks before releasing the information, so as not to do so in the midst of the tense few weeks post-Sept. 11. Not that it was released on a better day, with more consequential news -- the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 that killed at least 260 people, the Taliban fleeing Kabul -- making the reexamined ballots seem all the more silly. What's a few thousand unread ballots in the face of thousands of Americans being killed by al-Qaida?

Still, the biggest, most comprehensive and most thoroughly conducted media recount indicates that if there had been a statewide review of all the 175,000 overvotes and undervotes unread on Election Day 2000, Al Gore would have ultimately beaten George W. Bush by anywhere from 42 to 171 votes, depending upon the method of counting.

Gruffed White House spokesman Ari Fleischer: "The election was settled a year ago, President Bush won and the voters have long since moved on."

That's perfectly true. The election is settled, Bush won and the voters have moved on. But in the world of politics, that wouldn't necessarily matter. This was the most controversial election in a century, and whatever one thinks about Al Gore, the consortium's data proposes a fairly shocking notion on its face -- that the wrong man may well have taken the oath of office last January. Especially when one contemplates that Gore nationally garnered 537,000 more popular votes than did President Bush.

But for a number of reasons this fairly stunning conclusion has been downplayed significantly. Even by some of the media organizations that paid for the recount, which include the Associated Press, CNN, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Palm Beach Post, the St. Petersburg Times and Tribune Publishing.

Some of this is because there seems to be little outrage -- and few Democratic talking heads willing to take up the cause. "People are either more concerned about terrorism, and/or they prefer Bush and his team handling the terrorist threat," speculated former Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb. "Or maybe the story is too long to read."

Another reason is that, as during the recount fiasco itself, Gore still remains unable to generate much enthusiasm even among those who would be his natural supporters.

Many Democrats are upset that Gore himself hasn't raised more of a stink. One former senior Gore campaign strategist confessed to being so disheartened after reading Gore's benign statement about the consortium recount ("As I said on December 13 of last year, we are a nation of laws, and the presidential election of 2000 is over," Gore said. "And of course, right now, our country faces a great challenge as we seek to successfully combat terrorism. I fully support President Bush's efforts to achieve that goal") that he crumpled the newspaper in a ball and tossed it out angrily.

But of the 20 precincts of significant size that showed the highest rate of spoiled ballots, all were at least 80 percent African-American. Many Democrats don't see the fight as just about Gore, but about the right to vote, and by being quiet, Gore is infuriating many Democrats who feel cheated.

By being silent, Gore is clearly defusing any attention the story would otherwise have received.

"If Gore's saying that 'George W. Bush is my commander in chief,' and Joe Lieberman's saying it, no matter what the results are, who cares?" says Florida Democratic Party spokesman Tony Welch. "I care, by the way. But in the overall analysis, it's a really big nonstory."

But there are other reasons for the lack of buzz, for the failure of the recount and its potentially troublesome conclusions to generate much discussion. One is the ambiguous nature of the recount and the ambiguous way many in the media have portrayed its conclusions. "It doesn't slam-dunk it for anyone," says Welch. "There's a lot to muddle through to come to the conclusion that Gore was the winner and anyone can point to another story that says he wasn't."

Another reason may be a general lack of enthusiasm for Gore among many Democratic officials, who believe Gore was a dud of a candidate who will blow it again if given a chance in 2004. Still other rank-and-file Democrats feel let down by Gore's reticence since last December.

"I don't think Al Gore acts like a man who wants to be president of the United States," Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., said on CNN in August. "He's been away for almost eight months now," said the feisty liberal. "We've had a lot going on in that eight-month period of time." But Gore -- who is "supposed to be the titular head of the party" -- has been absent, Waters complained. "There's been some terrific battles in the Congress of the United States dealing with this tax cut by the president of the United States, and Social Security, and stem cells. You name it. And where's Al Gore?"

Donna Brazile, Gore's campaign manager, is upset that the Florida fiasco hasn't resulted in serious election reform, and she sees the resounding thud of the recount news in that context. "For an entire year we have not have a spiritual leader on election reform, the same way that John McCain is the spiritual leader of campaign finance reform," Brazile says. "Even before Sept. 11, election reform had died."

One senses that Brazile wishes Gore would try to become that "spiritual leader."

Brazile, who is teaching at the University of Maryland's Academy of Leadership, says that "the only groups and the only constituencies who are talking about Florida are African-Americans, with some progressive elements. But by and large people walked away. They said, 'OK. So what?' We kept saying a disproportionate number of African-Americans didn't have their votes counted and people said, 'Move on, move on.' And the 'Move on' crowd won."

"Why do you think I'm sitting at home and teaching instead of pounding the pavement for candidates?" Brazile asks. "If people are not going to stand up for you, why should I work hard for them?"

The recount indicated that African-Americans were "three times as likely to have their ballots discarded," she says. But there hasn't been any serious investigation as to whether there was a purposeful spoilage of these ballots. "I don't believe in my heart of hearts that African-Americans would make that big a mistake," she says. "Something happened to some of those ballots. Somebody tampered with the process."

Even if some of the mistakes were innocent -- like the Duval County elections supervisor, who put the instructions on the sample ballot to "Vote all pages," though the list for presidential candidates was two pages long, thus possibly resulting in overvotes -- there was little actual fallout, Brazile says. "We should have caught that, someone should have caught that, but did that official get fired? No. Was he made an example of? No."

She pauses. Sighs. "I'm trying not to relive 2000," she says. "It's taking lot of time. I'm trying to put away some of my anger, but it's been a very difficult process."

A final reason for the story's resounding thud may be a certain media relishing of the consortium's ironic conclusions. After all, if either of Gore's recount strategies pursued by his legal team had been acted upon, then Bush would have won, according to the consortium's review.

It's only through a full statewide recount of both the undervotes and the overvotes -- an option advocated by Gore recount lawyers such as Jack Young, and blithely dismissed by the Gore kingpins -- that Gore would have won. (That Gore's legal eagles did so because they thought that option would result in Gore's being slammed for dragging the process out is certainly understandable, though P.R. considerations are hardly lofty ones.)

For the early "protest" phase of the recount, for instance, Gore hand-picked four Democratic-leaning counties for his hand recounts -- Broward, Palm, Miami-Dade and Volusia counties -- thus ignoring the state's other 63 counties and their approximately 110,000 unread ballots, both undervotes and overvotes. The consortium's recount indicated that if Florida's 25 electoral votes had been assigned according to this plan, Bush would have won by 225 votes.

In the "contest" period of the recount, Gore's lawyers managed to get the Florida Supreme Court to implement a statewide recount of just the 65,000 undervotes. Had that not been stopped by the U.S. Supreme Court, then Bush would have won by 490 votes. If the county election supervisors who planned on counting the overvotes had done so, Bush would have won by 493 votes. (Not that the Bush recount team was playing any more honorably, blocking any recount that they could.)

These, however, are questions of strategy. And clearly Gore and his team chose the wrong one. Their strategy was unfair, since it initially focused on four Democratic-leaning counties and ignored the others precisely because they were Republican-leaning; and then because it focused on undervotes and ignored overvotes, where voter intent could clearly be discerned -- and had been discerned and counted in places like Gadsden and Volusia counties, where there were clearly votes for both Gore and Bush in the overvotes.

And in the end it ended up not only being unfair, but stupid, too. Some Democratic strategists who early on in the post-election battle argued for a statewide recount of all 175,000 ballots -- but were overruled -- confessed to feeling some vindication with news of the consortium's recount.

Others didn't feel anything but anger -- at the Bush team, and at the media, and seemingly at the unfairness of life itself.

"Just because he happened to choose the wrong formula to get there doesn't negate the fact that he got more votes and that he should be president," says one Democratic strategist.

Shoulda woulda coulda. The lesson learned: Next time you say "Count every vote," mean it.

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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