Discerning Voter Intent
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."
Last year's recount battles largely focused on about 61,000 undervote ballots. In the recounts, Gore advisers pushed for the most liberal interpretation of voter intent, giving rise to heated disputes and legal wrangling over whether "dimpled chads" on punch-card ballots should be counted as votes.
All ballot data, along with supplemental surveys and other information gathered by the media group, can be viewed on the NORC Web site.
Democratic Hopefuls Score Bush (The Washington Post, Feb 23, 2003)
White House Silent on Racial Controversy (The Washington Post, Jan 5, 2003)
Getting the Votes -- And the Kudos (The Washington Post, Jan 1, 2003)
Bush, Gore Campaign Costs Questioned (The Washington Post, Dec 11, 2002)
Mr. Resident (The Washington Post, Nov 17, 2002)
But in another twist clear only now, the study found that where Gore had the greatest opportunity to pick up votes was not in those undervote ballots but in the approximately 114,000 overvote ballots, particularly 25,000 overvote ballots read by optical scanning machines.
Using the most inclusive standards, Bush actually gained more votes than Gore -- about 300 net -- from the examination of the undervote ballots. But Gore picked up 885 more votes than Bush from the examination of overvote ballots, 662 of those from optical scan ballots.
The study did not credit Gore with the thousands of votes lost as a result of the infamous butterfly ballot in Palm Beach County. Many voters using the ballot became confused by the listing of presidential candidates on two facing pages and punched Gore's name and one of the candidates next to him, nullifying their vote.
An examination of the Senate choices on those ballots indicates the mistakes were made overwhelmingly by Democrats and suggests that Gore lost about 8,000 votes because of the confusion. The Post study did not award those overvotes to Gore because no clear voter intent could be determined on a ballot where two candidates were marked. A similar analysis of the two-page presidential ballot in Duval County showed Gore lost about 7,000 votes, which also could not be given to Gore in the study.
Gore never pushed hard for the kind of full recount that might have brought overvotes into play. And the Florida Supreme Court, which on Dec. 8 ordered a statewide manual recount -- halted in midstream the next day by the U.S. Supreme Court -- focused on undervotes and required only that undervotes be retabulated.
Ironically, it was Bush's lawyers who argued that recounting only the undervotes violated the constitutional guarantee to equal protection. And the U.S. Supreme Court, in its Dec. 12 ruling that ended the dispute, also questioned whether the Florida court should have limited a statewide recount only to undervotes.
Had the high court acted on that, and had there been enough time left for the Florida Supreme Court to require yet another statewide recount, Gore's chances would have been dramatically improved. But there are too many variables in any effort to reexamine the ballots -- from varying standards in judging ballots in the counties to problems of getting an exact replication of the overvote and undervote ballots -- to be able to say with absolute certainty what might have happened in Florida.
"In my opinion, it's too close to call," said Kirk Wolter, senior vice president of NORC. "If we take it as given that two major candidates were separated by perhaps a few hundred or fewer ballots, it may be that we'll never know the exact vote total."
Designed to provide a historical record for one of the most remarkable presidential elections in U.S. history, the ballot study was launched early this year by a consortium of news organizations and originally was to have been completed by last spring. Consortium members, in addition to The Post, included the New York Times, the Associated Press, CNN, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal and four Florida newspapers: the Orlando Sentinel, the Palm Beach Post, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale and the St. Petersburg Times.
"We joined the consortium to obtain an accurate, nonpartisan assessment of the uncounted ballots in Florida to determine how the people of Florida voted and why their voting systems did not work better," said Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. "The results shed light on the actions of the players in the constitutional drama in Florida. They also provide information that can help the federal and state governments improve voting systems nationwide. And they will help historians better analyze a unique and important event in American history."
Various technical problems delayed the study, including the difficulty county officials had in separating the disputed ballots into undervotes and overvotes. The events of Sept. 11 set back publication further because news organizations were devoting all their resources to coverage of the terrorist attacks and subsequent events.
The project used impartial observers hired by NORC to examine the ballots and considered many possible alternatives for tallying the votes. But no study of this type can accurately recreate Election Day 2000 or predict what might have emerged from individual battles over more than 6 million votes in Florida's 67 counties.