The Illegitimate President

First, it is an established fact that Gore beat Bush in the national popular vote by over a half million votes. Secondly, Consortium interpretations of the voting data conclude that thousands more people voted for Gore in Florida than Bush. Third, discounting such unretrievable invalid votes, Consortium interpretations, which allow only fully-punched ballot cards and correctly marked optical scaned ballots, conclude that Gore still beat Bush in a statewide recount in Florida by a thin margin of over 100 votes.

In journalism, it's called "burying the lead": A story starts off with what everyone already knows, while the real news-- the most surprising, significant or never-been-told-before information-- gets pushed down where people are less likely to see it.

That's what happened to the findings of the media study of the uncounted votes from last year's Florida presidential vote. A consortium of news outlets-- including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Tribune Co. (Newsday's parent company), The Wall Street Journal, Associated Press and CNN-- spent nearly a year and $900,000 reexamining every disputed ballot.

Gore and the Florida Supreme Court ignored overvotes-- votes where mechanical counting registered more than one vote-- on the assumption that there would be no way to tell which of the multiple candidates the voter actually intended to pick.

But as the consortium found when it actually looked at the overvotes, one often could tell what the voter's intent was. Many of the overvotes involved, for example, a voter punching the hole next to a candidate's name, and then writing in the same candidate's name.

Since the intent of the voter is clear, these are clearly valid votes under Florida law. And Gore picked up enough of such votes that it almost didn't matter what standard you used when looking at undervotes-- whether you counted every dimple or insisted on a fully punched chad, the consortium found that Gore ended up the winner of virtually any full reexamination of rejected ballots.

What's new is the finding that, since voters are supposed to decide elections rather than lawyers or judges, the state's electoral votes appear to have gone to the wrong candidate. Given that the outcome in Florida determined the national victor, this is not just news but a critical challenge to the legitimacy of the presidency.

It's tempting to attribute this coyness to Sept. 11, and news outlets' reluctance to undermine the legitimacy of the presidency when the country is at war. But the coverage of the consortium's findings is similar to the way earlier media recounts were handled; even the most preliminary Miami Herald/USA Today ballot stories prompted "Bush Really Won" stories across the country. Similarly, when Bush's inauguration was greeted by raucous marchers contesting his victory, many outlets played down the significance of the protests. The New York Times virtually ignored them.

If only allowing fully-punched ballot cards and correctly marked optical scan ballots to be counted, Gore won by 115 votes. If each county's own standard of tabulation was used, Gore won by 171 votes. If they also allowed dimples on punch cards and any marks on optical scan ballots that indicate a true candidate choice, Gore won by 107 votes.

Ever since Bush was selected by the Supreme Court by a vote of 5-4 to take over the U.S. presidency, the Dems have said that a fair and thorough recounting of the Florida vote would prove that Gore won.