Woulda. Coulda. Shoulda.
Media organizations investigating Florida's chaotic presidential election are offering a full range of hypothetical mea culpas for the Gore and Bush camps, scenarios that will fuel political debate among Democrats and Republicans for years.
But amid the blur of statistics and conjecture, two general conclusions are emerging. First, given the lack of a single standard of what constituted a valid vote in Florida on November 7, historians will likely never be able to attach an exact number to a margin of victory or defeat for either candidate.
And second, the media investigations are demonstrating just how ripe Florida's election process was for post-election manipulation by lawyers, judges, and election officials in ways that might well have determined the outcome.
Such a conclusion may seem obvious given the well-publicized turmoil of last fall. But it comes in sharp contrast to the basic idea that elections should be decided by voters rather than those who have the power to determine how votes are counted.
On one level, what the media investigations are offering is insight into how the system might have been twisted or bent in a certain direction to favor one candidate or the other. But what these investigations will likely never offer is a definitive answer to the question who won Florida.
"I don't think there will ever be one set of agreed-upon numbers," says Aubrey Jewett, a political scientist at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. "It really leaves things fuzzy."
OK, Bush won after all
In a report published this week, The Miami Herald and USA Today offer a range of election outcomes based on an analysis of how election officials in Florida's 67 counties might have recounted 64,248 ballots containing so-called undervotes. An undervote is a ballot that has gone uncounted by a vote-counting machine, either because no valid vote was made or the machine misread one that was valid.
The report says in part that George W. Bush would most likely have won the election had the Florida Supreme Court's statewide manual recount of ballots been permitted to proceed. The newspapers say Mr. Bush would have won by 1,665 votes using the most generous standard of counting dimpled chads, as urged by lawyers for Al Gore.
But they also concluded Mr. Gore would have prevailed had election officials counted only those punch-card ballots that had been punched clean through, with no hanging chads. Under that scenario, Gore would have won by 3 votes.
Some Democrats criticize the Herald-USA Today report, saying it downplays several other scenarios that could suggest a Gore victory.
"All these partial recounts are very confusing and very misleading," says Bob Fertik, co-founder of the Internet-based group Democrats.com. "If the headline reads 'Bush Won,' then they are telling half the story."
Wait, more numbers are coming
Mr. Fertik says any judgment about what happened in Florida should await release of a comprehensive media review of both the 64,000 undervotes and some 110,000 overvotes. An overvote occurs when a machine reads more than one vote for one candidate on a ballot.
In the meantime, Bush supporters are hailing the Herald-USA Today report as vindication for the US Supreme Court, which ended the election in Bush's favor after ruling that conducting a statewide manual recount of ballots without first setting a statewide vote standard would violate the equal-protection clause of the US Constitution. "The Miami Herald study now proves that if you use different standards county by county you'll get different results," says James Bopp, Jr., who filed an equal protection lawsuit on behalf of Florida voters.
The Herald study also suggests that lawyers for Gore had good reason to push only for hand recounts in three large Democratic counties in south Florida, rather than statewide.
While the former vice president at one point called for a statewide recount in a proposed deal with Bush, the Gore lawyers never sought in court or legal filings such a statewide recount. Instead, they insisted that all they wanted was a recount of votes in Broward, Miami-Dade, and Palm Beach Counties.
Results contained within the Herald study and an earlier study by the Palm Beach Post suggest that Gore would have won the presidency had the canvassing board in Palm Beach County adopted a more generous ballot counting standard.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor