Published Monday, February 26, 2001, in The Miami Herald
DADE UNDERVOTES SUPPORT BUSH WIN
Review of ballots by Herald suggests Gore recount effort would have failed
BY AMY DRISCOLL
If Secretary of State Katherine Harris had let South Florida counties complete manual recounts before certifying the results of last November's election, George W. Bush likely would have won the presidency outright, without weeks of indecision and political warfare, a review of Miami-Dade County's ``undervote'' ballots shows.
Al Gore would have netted no more than 49 votes if a manual recount of Miami-Dade's ballots had been completed, according to the review, which was sponsored by The Herald and its parent company, Knight Ridder. That would have been 140 too few to overcome Bush's lead, even when joined with Gore gains in Volusia, Palm Beach and Broward counties -- the three other counties where Gore had requested manual recounts.
Of 10,644 ballots that the Miami-Dade elections office identified as undervotes -- ballots bearing no machine-readable vote for president -- the review found that 1,555 bore some kind of marking that might be interpreted as a vote for Gore. An additional 1,506 bore some kind of marking that might be interpreted as a vote for Bush. There were 106 markings for other candidates.
No markings for president were found on 4,892 ballots, and 2,058 ballots bore markings in spaces that had been assigned to no candidate. An additional 527 ballots were deemed to have markings for more than one presidential candidate.
A large number of ballots -- 1,912 -- contained clean punches. But 1,840 of those were in ballot positions that corresponded to no candidate, including 1,667 ballots where the voter cleanly punched the positions just below the numbers corresponding to Bush or Gore.
Republicans called the results of The Herald's review further proof that Bush was the legitimate winner all along.
``President Bush was lawfully elected on Election Day. He won after the first statewide machine recount,'' said Mark Wallace, a Miami lawyer for the Republican Party. ``He won after the manual recount, and he won at the conclusion of all the litigation.
``Now, after a ballot review using liberal standards unprecedented under the law, we find President Bush would still win. At some point, the Democratic National Committee needs to accept that, and that time is now.''
Democrats maintained that The Herald's ballot review reveals that neither side could have known how the recounts would turn out.
``This underscores how unpredictable the whole recount strategy was, on both sides,'' said Doug Hattaway, former Gore campaign spokesman. ``This shows Bush's tactics of delaying and blocking vote counts didn't really benefit him.''
But Hattaway acknowledged that the Democrats, too, may have been flawed in their approach. ``Our strategy of focusing on four counties might not have benefited Gore either,'' he said with a rueful laugh.
The review of the Miami-Dade ballots was undertaken as part of The Herald's statewide inspection of undervotes. The Herald began the inspection in December, shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court halted a statewide recount of undervotes that had been ordered by the Florida Supreme Court.
The Herald and Knight Ridder retained a public accounting firm, BDO Seidman, LLP, to conduct the inspection. In the weeks since, BDO Seidman accountants have inspected undervotes in most Florida counties. Ballots in only two counties, Holmes in the Panhandle and Duval in north Florida, have not been reviewed. Both counties have delayed granting access to the ballots because of concerns that they might become evidence in lawsuits.
In Miami-Dade, the review took more than 80 hours spread over nearly three weeks. A BDO Seidman accountant sat in the Miami-Dade elections office in downtown Miami and recorded information about each undervote. The ballots were handled by elections officials, who held them out for inspection, then flipped them over so the reverse side could be seen.
A Herald reporter also reviewed each undervote ballot and made a separate and independent assessment of its characteristics. That review was used for a statistical check of accuracy, but was not considered in the tabulations BDO reported at the end of the review.
The inspection showed a range of problems with the ballots. Voters are supposed to indicate their preferences by using a pointed metal tool, called a stylus, to punch out perforated squares known as chads. A computer ballot counter later reads the card by passing light through the holes left by the punched-out chads.
But some voters in Miami-Dade didn't punch the chads. Instead, they marked their ballots with pen or pencil, either coloring in the chads or crossing them out. Some were torn. One voter wrote across the top of the ballot, in bright green block letters: Elian Gonzalez.
Other voters punched chads that didn't correspond to a candidate. On the Miami-Dade ballot, 736 voters made marks at hole No. 5, one below Bush's No. 4, and 1,017 voters made marks at hole No. 7, one below Gore's No. 6.
And still others, 2,457 altogether, marked their ballots with only an indentation or ``dimple'' in the presidential column.
BDO, under its agreement with The Herald, made no effort to determine whether a mark on a ballot was a legally valid vote. Instead, its accountants noted what kind of mark was present and its location, then totaled the marks of various kinds and reported them to The Herald.
It is unknown whether those marks would have been counted as votes by the Miami-Dade canvassing board, which reviewed only about a quarter of the undervotes before halting its hand count of all ballots Nov. 22.
But the Herald review clearly shows that the Gore strategy of selective recounts was unlikely to have ended in victory. In addition, the state Supreme Court order Dec. 8 to count the undervotes statewide -- and the weeks of political acrimony that preceded it -- might have been avoided if the initial recounts had gone forward without opposition.
That's because the revised totals from the four counties likely would not have overcome the 930-vote lead Bush had amassed after a state-mandated machine recount Nov. 8 and the tabulation of overseas absentee ballots Nov. 17.
Inclusion of the revised totals would have stripped the Gore campaign of most of its grounds for the lawsuit that ended in a late-night decision by the U.S. Supreme Court on Dec. 12. Gore's campaign had argued that ``legal votes'' from Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties had been excluded from the state certified vote totals.
Gore's tactic of requesting recounts in just four counties was a gamble from the start. ``The rule of thumb is, when you're behind, you ask for a statewide hand count,'' said Democratic lawyer Chris Sautter, who advised the Gore camp to do just that.
``My advice was pretty much rejected out of hand,'' said Sautter, co-author of a 1994 book called The Recount Primer. ``The feeling was that [a statewide hand count] was not something that was manageable.''
But the tactic did scare Republicans, who fought it in the courtroom and on television. On Nov. 13, U.S. District Judge Don Middlebrooks rejected a GOP effort to stop the recounts.
The critical decision to reject late-arriving vote recounts was made two days later by Secretary of State Harris, co-chair of the Bush campaign in Florida.
Harris announced that she would not accept any results that came in after the Nov. 14 deadline set by state law for counties to report vote totals, even though Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis had ruled earlier that she had the discretion to do so.
Only Volusia County had completed its recount by Harris' deadline, resulting in 98 net votes for Gore. Recounts in the other counties were proceeding slowly or had not yet started. Harris told them they didn't have an acceptable reason for being late. When she announced the totals, Bush led by 300 votes.
On Nov. 17, several thousand overseas ballots were counted, widening Bush's lead to 930.
And Bush would have stayed in the lead, the review of Miami-Dade ballots suggests, had Harris simply revised her initial certification when recounts came in from the three other counties.
Those results would have given Gore a total of 790 net votes -- 567 from Broward, 174 from Palm Beach and 49 from Miami-Dade. Bush would have been the victor by 140 votes.
Instead, Palm Beach and Broward counties appealed first to Judge Lewis and then, ultimately, to the Florida Supreme Court, which extended the deadline to Nov. 26.
Even then, Harris refused to accept Palm Beach's results, which were two hours late, and would not accept the results of a partial vote tally from Miami-Dade, which had halted its recount Nov. 22 after reviewing 139 of the county's 790 precincts, including absentee precincts.
The rejection became central to Gore's contest of the election, which ultimately ended with the Florida Supreme Court ordering a statewide recount of the undervote.
It was that statewide recount that was halted by the U.S. Supreme Court.