Florida recounts fall short of unanimous

Results and methods clash during reviews of presidential votes

March 24, 2001|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - George W. Bush has been running the United States since January; his rival, former Democratic Vice President Al Gore, who won the nation's popular vote but couldn't capture the White House, has been teaching journalism part time.

But the vote counting isn't done.

To be sure, Bush officially won Florida's 25 electoral votes, and thus the presidency, by a tiny, 537-vote margin after the U.S. Supreme Court stopped the recount. That hasn't stopped a collection of media organizations from all over the country from focusing on Florida's ballots. They started recounts of their own not long after Election Day became a 36-day debacle.

They don't all come up with the same results. And none of the results count anywhere but around the water cooler.

On one day, newspaper headlines declare Bush the true winner; a few weeks later, the headlines say Gore may have captured more votes in the Sunshine State.

"It's very confusing to people out there, I'll grant you, but they're probably no more confused than they were in the weeks after the election," says Bill Rose, deputy managing editor of the Palm Beach Post, the author of the most recent recount, the one giving Gore an edge. "You're hearing so many voices and the voices sometimes seem to differ, and that's unfortunate.

"The newspapers are not doing these counts to try to make Al Gore president. He's not. George W. Bush is the duly elected president."

The Miami Herald hired an accounting firm to assist in its inspection of ballots - and reported that its count in Miami-Dade County, where an official recount was halted by boisterous protesters and a time crunch, gave Bush a gain of 46 votes there instead of an expected Democratic advantage. That was reported around the world as a validation of Bush's victory. But the Herald isn't done counting yet; after finishing with its home county, it's doing the whole state.

Meanwhile, in the Orlando area, the Orlando Sentinel's count has given Gore an edge, but not enough to overtake Bush. That paper isn't finished, either. And most recently, the Palm Beach Post concluded this month that by counting all ballot markings in Palm Beach County, Gore grabbed enough to give him the White House. The paper also determined that the confusing butterfly ballot there cost Gore the election.

The biggest count yet belongs to a consortium of major media, including The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, CNN, Associated Press, the St. Petersburg Times, the Palm Beach Post and Tribune Publishing (which owns, among others, the Los Angeles Times and The Sun), which spent $500,000 to review all ballots where no vote for president was recorded and where two or more votes were recorded.

The study, being conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, should be ready for publication sometime in April. As of yesterday, the center has reviewed 104,149 ballots in 58 of 97 counties.

"It's probably good for history, but it makes no difference from the standpoint of what happened," said Warren H. Newell, the Republican chairman of the Palm Beach County Commission. "To me, it's a fait accompli. It's done."

Palm Beach County is expected to be the last county examined. Theresa LePore, the supervisor of elections who was dubbed "Madame Butterfly" for designing the convoluted presidential ballot here, said she couldn't reopen her ballots and tie up her employees until after this month's municipal elections and any possible runoffs were completed.

One of the most recognizable figures of the November recount - she rarely goes out to dinner anymore because she can't stand the pointing, whispering and staring as she enters the room - she is understandably disturbed by what she called the media "inspections." She has sometimes had four organizations (including the Republican Party) at a time looking at ballots taking different notes off the same punch card, often chatting, sometimes yawning, through the tedious (and in her view, unnecessary) process.

"It's all subject to interpretation," LePore said recently. "If you have four different groups looking at the exact same cards, they're going to come out with different numbers."

Republicans have tried to play down the recounts.

"They've done such a disservice to the American public," said Miami attorney Mark Wallace, a Republican who spent much of November looking over LePore's shoulder as she and the county canvassing board searched for hanging and dimpled chads. "I think they're holding these out to the American people as legitimate. It's not science; it's science fiction."

Despite his gripe, the Republicans are active participants in the process. They send out daily missives questioning the media's methods. Some say the story is over and the papers should just move on. Others point to the one that reaffirms President Bush's legitimacy in the Oval Office.

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