The Miami Herald reports that -- drum roll please -- George W. Bush won the state of Florida and, therefore, the presidency in last year's election.
No one, of course, was actually wondering about that or had put their vacation plans on hold pending the outcome. The additional "recounts" of Florida ballots by news and other organizations are completely illegitimate, providing neither a definitive "see I told you so" to the president's supporters nor an "it doesn't really prove anything" to his critics. Instead, they contribute to the perverse trend that reality, even national election outcomes, is whatever anyone wants it to be.
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Though there is a great impulse to put the political past behind us, and just when it seemed safe to venture into the political water again, let me refresh the facts. The official machine count of the Florida ballots cast on Nov. 7 gave George W. Bush a lead of 1,655 votes. The close margin triggered an automatic recount which gave Mr. Bush a lead of 327 votes. The overseas absentee ballots received by Nov. 17 gave Mr. Bush a lead of 930 votes (the 10-day period for overseas ballots was created by a court, not the legislature).
The Gore campaign sought a manual recount in four heavily Democratic counties to examine the "undervotes," ballots the machines did not count because they contained no clear vote. Since setting the rules can mean winning the game, the Gore campaign hoped the Democrats running these recounts would apply standards able to "discover" enough previously non-existent votes for Mr. Gore to win.
State law allowed Secretary of State Katherine Harris to consider only recount returns submitted within seven days of the election. The Gore campaign sued and the Florida Supreme Court rewrote the state election statute, turning that seven-day deadline into a 19-day deadline. The Gore lawyers, however, created two problems for their client. First, their litigation changed and confused the standards used from county to county and the U.S. Supreme Court eventually voted 7-2 that this system violated the U.S. Constitution. Second, their litigation delayed some of the manual recount efforts, resulting in a partial recount in Palm Beach County and no recount in Miami-Dade County. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually voted 5-4 that insufficient time existed to correct the constitutional problem. That final Supreme Court decision left in place the official certified 537-vote margin for Mr. Bush.
The result of an election process that followed the law and was untainted by fraud is both definitive and legitimate. Increasingly, however, folks only accept as legitimate that with which they agree. Those who continued to speculate what the final election tally would have been had those four counties all completed their manual recounts were not just curious; they were searching for a more preferable result that they could claim as the "real" or legitimate outcome.
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Democrats said Mr. Gore would have gained at least 600 votes in Miami-Dade County alone, wiping out Mr. Bush's final margin of victory. Under Florida law, the ballots are public records so various organizations have signed up to do their own "recounts." The Palm Beach Post's effort concluded that Mr. Bush would have gained an additional six votes in Miami-Dade County. More recently, the Miami Herald teamed up with USA Today and Hearst Newspapers in hiring an accounting firm to take another crack at it. Its review of the 10,644 Miami-Dade "undervotes" said Mr. Gore would have gained 49 more votes.
No matter what their results, none of these so-called "recounts" is legitimate. That label, in fact, is a fraud since it implies that what was done once is simply being done again. That simply isn't true. The physical condition of these ballots, the standards used to evaluate them, and the people applying those standards have all changed substantially since Election Day.
First, the physical condition of these ballots has changed. The machines did not count these paper ballots because the chad, or tiny piece of paper voters had to remove to signify their vote, remained completely or partially attached. These ballots, many with these tiny chads dangling from one or two corners back on election day, have already been handled multiple times by machines and county election workers, trucked upon court order up to Tallahassee and back, and packed and unpacked over and over again. That activity is more than enough to dislodge chads hanging by one or two corners, chads completely attached but dimpled outward, and even chads that had never been touched by voters at all. This no doubt contributed, even at the first step in this process, to the shift in the tally from the official count and automatic recount.
Counting room floors were littered with chads during the counties' manual recounts. Many ballots now appearing to contain a vote did not contain that vote on election day and there's simply no way of knowing which ones or how many. As such, these are not recounts at all, but new counts of essentially different ballots.
Second, the standards used to evaluate these ballots have changed. The only standards that ever counted were those set by elected county election board officials tasked by law with overseeing the counting. The Supreme Court eventually ruled that changing standards within a county and between counties was so serious that it violated the Constitution. Yet the standards being used during these latest so-called "recounts" are even less legitimate. They not only bear no necessary relation to the standards used in the original count, but are set by people with no authority to do so and no accountability for their decisions.
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From the beginning, everyone knew that setting the standards could easily determine the outcome. That's why the Gore campaign asked for the manual recounts only in heavily Democratic counties with Democrats running the election boards. But at least there was authority and accountability. With neither in place now, each so-called "recount" will necessarily produce different results.
Third, the people applying these standards have changed. During the legitimate manual recount, the same group of election officials applied whatever standard existed at the time. Though that was subjective, even arbitrary, and obviously politically manipulated, today each so-called "recount" employs not only different standards, but different people applying them. It might be the accounting firm hired by a news organization, operatives brought in by a public interest legal organization, chad-counters assigned by a political advocacy group, or someone else entirely. Different people with different eyes, different experience and ability, different motivation and purpose. None of these is a recount of anything, but an entirely independent count that bears little or no relation to anything else, least of all the legitimate election outcome America has known for months.
Lawyers or any other advocate will find more than enough in all this arbitrary and unreliable counting to "prove" any point they want to make. While the Los Angeles Times said this latest so-called "recount" had found "Bush a Winner," the New York Times said it "Suggests Gore Still Falls Short." The Detroit Free Press said, "Voters Picked Bush After All," while CNN spun it as Bush receiving a "Slight Florida Edge." Each of these is as true or false as anyone wants it to be.
The official count was guided by the law and conducted by legitimate election officials and untainted by fraud. It is the only legitimate election result, and the most accurate as well. Each subsequent so-called "recount" becomes less accurate and reliable and more subjective and manipulable. The ballots are different, the standards are different, the counters are different, and the results are different. Whether they show Mr. Gore winning or give Mr. Bush a landslide makes no difference. As such, paying them any attention at all degrades the rule of law and undermines the fairness and legitimacy of the legal procedures on which Americans must rely.