The complacency that greeted the media recount of last year's presidential vote in Florida is disturbing, but not surprising.
It's not surprising because the election was a long time ago, because we're in the middle of a war and because well over 90 percent of Americans -- including Al Gore, Joe Lieberman and this less-than-reconciled writer -- wish President Bush well in leading the struggle against terrorism. In the choice between Bush and bin Laden, no recount would be required.
So why should we care? Because the media consortium confirmed beyond any doubt that a substantial plurality of Florida's voters intended to vote for Gore. This plurality was foiled by flawed voting machinery, poor ballot design and faulty instructions given by election officials. If the equipment had worked -- or if all voters had been given a chance to correct their mistakes -- Gore would have carried Florida by anywhere from 15,000 to 45,000 votes.
There's more. Even if you assume correctly that none of those invalidated, double-punched ballots could be counted, a full recount of the plainly valid ballots that Florida's computers did not count shows that Gore would have carried the state by anywhere from 60 to 171 votes.
Those who want to write off the media count as "superfluous," to use White House spokesman Ari Fleischer's interesting word, cling to a different set of numbers. The media consortium also found that if Gore had simply been granted the limited recounts he sought in four counties, Bush would have won. Therefore, the reasoning goes, the U.S. Supreme Court's decision stopping the recount made no difference. In any event, wasn't the election so close that we can never really "know" who won?
The last question is valid, but it begs a more important one. Could we have known far more, much earlier, if the Bush campaign had not resolutely tried to block recounts and if the U.S. Supreme Court had not intervened at all?
The answer is yes. That's why the court's final decision will always deserve to be seen as anti-democratic in the small-d sense. Given a choice between getting to a quick result and getting to a more accurate reading of the wishes of Florida's voters, the court chose speed.
This does not get Gore off the hook. It turns out he would have been best served by doing the right thing and demanding a full, statewide recount of all 175,000 undervotes and overvotes. The Gore side will assert, correctly, that it faced tough political and legal hurdles in getting a full recount. But that should have been its goal -- for substantive and, we now learn, practical reasons. As the Palm Beach Post, a partner in the recount, wrote: "If Gore had demanded and been granted recounts applying standards many Republicans said they would accept, he would have been president."
The media recount also shows that Bush's lieutenants did him a disservice by obstructing the recounts Gore sought. If Bush had kept his lawyers and demonstrators tightly leashed and simply acceded to Gore's limited requests, the election would have been decided much sooner, much more cleanly -- and in Bush's favor. Although neither side knew it at the time, each did its candidate more harm than good by playing hardball.
All the newspapers involved deserve credit for pursuing this ballot review, which underscores the urgency of voting reform. Bush could do himself and the cause of democracy much good by endorsing federal legislation -- and generous federal funding -- to improve voting systems nationwide.
We also need national standards for recounts to save us from the sort of dysfunctional litigation that characterized the Florida struggle. Federal law should require a full and immediate hand recount if a presidential candidate wins a state by, say, less than one-quarter of 1 percent of the total vote.
We can debate the precise percentage. What's important is the principle. Statewide recounts in close races are common for every other office. Is a presidential contest less important than a state treasurer's race? And if a state's vote didn't decide the electoral college winner, the losing candidate could waive the right to a recount. Federal standards on how to count ballots could also ensure we never again argue about chads.
Ah, you say, but nothing like the 2000 election could happen again.
Don't count on it. After the disputed election of 1876, the next three presidential elections were painfully close. We've been a 50-50 country in our politics for some years now, so we can't be sure history won't repeat itself. And surely we can agree that we should never again have to wait for a media consortium to tell us a year after the fact how we actually voted.