Florida ballots face one more count

Maybe you can put the Florida recount behind you, but America's largest news organizations can't. They are pooling their resources to find out, for history's sake, what those uncounted ballots really look like.

Results are expected in the next few months from partners The Miami Herald and USA Today, and from a highly unusual consortium announced last week that includes The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, CNN, and the Associated Press.

By sharing the significant costs of the investigation, these normally competitive news outlets will be able to bring information to the public that may improve the election process in the future and help answer questions about what actually happened in Florida.

"We spent 36 days arguing about what was on 180,000 ballots that were never seen," says John Broder, Washington editor for The New York Times and a coordinator of the consortium. "Those ballots contain a wealth of information."

When the results are released, Americans will have a better idea of how many different types of ballots there were, and how many dimpled ones, for example, each candidate had in his pile.

In some cases, consortium members may draw conclusions about what voters expected to do, but they say their goal is to create a definitive archive of the ballots, not to change the outcome of the election.

The idea appeals to readers in Florida, says Mark Seibel, assistant managing editor at The Miami Herald. "The mail is overwhelmingly in favor of our doing it. And the reason is a very simple one: curiosity," he says.

But it doesn't sit well with some Republicans, who are concerned about the accuracy of the media's approach and about taking legitimacy away from President-elect Bush.

Mediawatchers argue this is a classic case for press involvement. As a watchdog, it should be investigating the process by which an elected official came to power.

"That's exactly the function the press is supposed to perform. That's why it's called the Fourth Estate," says Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. "What matters is that the public gets the truest answer it can."

If the results turn out in Mr. Bush's favor, it might give his leadership more credence, not less, notes Mr. Seibel. "Our projections have indicated that it's quite likely [Bush won]. But you don't really know until you look at the ballots," he says.

Likewise, he says, if there are more ballots that look like they belonged to Al Gore, it could lead to finding ways to avoid mistaken outcomes in the future.

The Herald started its project mid-December and is looking at 60,000 ballots considered undervotes - those where the presidential choice couldn't be determined. The consortium is looking at all 180,000 uncounted votes, including the overvotes, where more than one candidate was selected.

Critics were initially concerned that reporters, with their own political leanings, would be examining the ballots - but that's not allowed under Florida law. Both groups are using outside organizations, who themselves don't touch the ballots, but watch as designated election officials do. The Herald and USA Today are being represented by BDO Seidman, an accounting firm, and the consortium is using the National Opinion Research Center, a nonprofit survey-research organization affiliated with the University of Chicago.

NORC will provide the members of its group with raw data, and the news organizations will analyze it separately. The Herald declined to join the consortium because of disagreements over methodology, and because it wanted to get credit for work that will likely affect readers in its own backyard.

That may work to the public's advantage. With more than one group weighing in, "you get a lot closer to an authoritative answer," notes Mr. Rosenstiel.

He explains that the reason people were comfortable with the final outcome of the election is because in the month leading up to it the process was made transparent by the press.

Seibel agrees. "The more the merrier because maybe there's something we've overlooked," he says, adding, "In the end, because two groups looked at it, we'll know more."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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