WASHINGTON -- In all likelihood, George W. Bush still would have won Florida and the presidency last year if either of two limited recounts -- one requested by Al Gore, the other ordered by the Florida Supreme Court -- had been completed, according to a study commissioned by The Washington Post and other news organizations.
But if Gore had found a way to trigger a statewide recount of all disputed ballots, or if the courts had required it, the result likely would have been different. An examination of uncounted ballots throughout Florida found enough where voter intent was clear to give Gore the narrowest of margins.
The study showed that if the two limited recounts had not been short-circuited -- the first by Florida county and state election officials and the second by the U.S. Supreme Court -- Bush would have held his lead over Gore, with margins ranging from 225 to 493 votes, depending on the standard. But the study also found that whether dimples are counted or a more restrictive standard is used, a statewide tally favored Gore by 60 to 171 votes.
Gore's narrow margin in the statewide count was the result of a windfall in overvotes. Those ballots -- on which a voter may have marked a candidate's name and also written it in -- were rejected by machines as a double vote on Election Day and most would not have been included in either of the limited recounts.
The study by The Post and other media groups, an unprecedented effort that involved examining 175,010 ballots in 67 counties, underscores what began to be apparent as soon as the polls closed in the nation's third most populous state Nov. 7, 2000: that no one can say with certainty who actually won Florida. Under every scenario used in the study, the winning margin remains less than 500 votes out of almost 6 million cast.
For 36 days after the election, the results in Florida remained in doubt, and so did the winner of the presidency. Bush emerged victorious when the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5 to 4 ruling, agreed with his lawyers' contention that the counting should end. Since then, many Gore partisans have accused the court of unfairly aborting a process that would have put their candidate ahead.
But an examination of the disputed ballots suggests that in hindsight the battalions of lawyers and election experts who descended on Florida pursued strategies that ended up working against the interests of their candidates.
Under any standard used to judge the ballots in the four counties where Gore lawyers had sought a recount -- Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade and Volusia -- Bush still ended up with more votes than Gore, according to the study. Bush also would have had more votes if the limited statewide recount ordered by the Florida Supreme Court and then stopped by the U.S. Supreme Court had been carried through.
Had Bush not been party to short-circuiting those recounts, he might have escaped criticism that his victory hinged on legal maneuvering rather than on counting the votes.
In Gore's case, the decision to ask for recounts in four counties rather than seek a statewide recount ultimately had far greater impact. But in the chaos of the early days of the recount battle, when Gore needed additional votes as quickly as possible and recounts in the four heavily Democratic counties offered him that possibility, that was not so obvious.
Nor was there any guarantee that Gore could have succeeded in getting a statewide recount. Florida law provided no mechanism to ask for a statewide recount, only county-by-county recounts. And although he did at one point call on Bush to join him in asking for a statewide recount, it was with the condition that Bush renounce all further legal action. Bush dismissed the offer, calling it a public relations gesture by his opponent, and Gore never took any further steps.
White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, responding to the study, said, "The voters settled this election last fall, and the nation moved on a long time ago. The White House isn't focused on this; the voters aren't focused on it." Fleischer called the results "superfluous."
Gore, in a written statement, did not respond directly to the study. "As I said on Dec. 13th of last year, we are a nation of laws and the presidential election of 2000 is over," he 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."
Conducted by the National Opinion Research Center, an organization based at the University of Chicago, the study examined all ballots that were initially rejected by voting machines. This included those that contained no discernible vote for president, known as "undervotes," and those that registered votes for more than one candidate, the "overvotes."
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