The real Florida Vote

Jose G. Perez jg_perez at
Thu Dec 7 23:07:55 MST 2000

Published in the Sunday, Dec. 3, Miami Herald

Gore would have had the edge in glitch-free Florida balloting, based on a
Herald analysis
cmorgan at

If no one had ever heard of hanging chads, if the butterfly ballot had never
flown, if no voter had bungled in the booth, who would have won Florida and
the presidency of the United States?
In a race so tight, it may never be known for certain. But a
Herald-commissioned analysis of voting patterns in each of the state's 5,885
precincts suggests that Florida likely would have gone to Al Gore -- by a
slim 23,000 votes -- rather than George W. Bush, the officially certified
victor by the wispy margin of 537.

It's a hypothetical result derived from something that clearly doesn't exist
in Florida or anywhere else in the nation -- an election where every ballot
is fully filled out and every one of those ballots gets counted, an elusive
ideal going these days by the buzzword ''the will of the people.''

It is also as close as anyone is likely to get to the statewide manual
recount that some people say is the only way to fairly assess who should be
awarded Florida's 25 Electoral College votes.

Reaction to the analysis, from the two camps locked in an exhausting and
tense legal battle, was radically different. The Gore campaign called it
''compelling evidence,'' and the Bush campaign dismissed it as ''statistical

One fundamental flaw, Republicans argued, was an assumption that every voter
actually intended to cast a vote in the presidential race. A large majority
of ballots in the disputed counties of Palm Beach and Duval didn't even have
a dimple on them, said Bush spokesman Tucker Eskew.

''If you want to divine voters' intent when there isn't even a mark on the
ballot, you'd do better to hire a palm reader than a statistical analyst,''
he said.

But Stephen Doig, a professor at Arizona State University who crunched the
numbers for The Herald, defended the analysis.

For example, he said, even if the analysis were adjusted to include the
remote possibility that 90 percent of voters whose ballots were discarded
actually intended to skip the race, the margin still would make a decisive
difference for Gore -- about 1,400 votes.

Doig described it as a matter of analyzing extremes. He started his analysis
with the assumption that every one of the 185,000 discarded ballots
represented an intent to vote in the presidential race. The other extreme,
he said, is the Bush contention that none of them should count.

''That extreme is the reality that we have, that Gov. Bush won by a
razor-thin 500 votes,'' Doig said. ''I'm no psychic. I don't know what they
really intended to do, but I do know that almost anywhere in that margin,
Gore wins. You can argue about where in the range it should be.''

Political analysts were mixed on what the numbers mean.

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for
Governmental Studies, said he considered the analysis open to questions.

''That is a reasonable assumption for the purposes of analysis,'' he said.
''For the purposes of politics, it's highly questionable. In most precincts,
that may well be true, but in some precincts it may not be, and that's a
critical difference.''

Still, Sabato said he found the end result ''perfectly reasonable.''

''What you're providing evidence for, however speculative, is that more
people showed up on election day for Al Gore,'' he said. ''But I'd also
state that in our system, woulda, shoulda, coulda doesn't matter. Only legal
votes matter.''

And all statistical and anecdotal evidence he'd seen, he said, indicated
that Bush probably collected more of those -- the ones that counted.

Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South
Florida, said there were too many variables in the analysis ''to feel

''Inferring what the voters' intent was, I have a real problem with people
who can say they can do that,'' she said.

No one, of course, can accurately assess what 185,000 voters intended to do
with their discarded ballots, but in purely statistical terms, there are
consistent trends.

The Herald determined those trends by examining precinct results from each
of the state's 67 counties. Those results showed that statewide, at least
185,000 ballots were discarded, either as undervotes (ballots that for
whatever reason didn't record a vote for president) or overvotes (ballots
where more than one candidate was selected).

Those ballots then were assigned to a candidate in the same proportion as
the candidate had received in each precinct as a whole. Under that analysis,
Bush would have received about 78,000, or 42 percent, of the uncounted
votes, and Gore would have received more than 103,000, or 56 percent. The
remaining 4,000 or so would have gone to the minor candidates.

That assumption of voting patterns is based on a concept long accepted by
pollsters -- that the opinions of a small percentage of people can be
extrapolated to project the views of a larger group. In this case, however,
the projection uses a larger group, generally from 90 to 98 percent of the
successful votes in precincts, to project the intent of a few.

The result: Gore ahead by 23,000 votes, a comfortable lead in comparison to
the official statistical tossup, though still narrow enough to trigger the
state's automatic recount, which kicks in when elections finish closer than
one-half of one percent.

The analysis also confirmed that the voters in Democratic precincts had a
far greater chance of having their ballots rejected. Only one of every 40
ballots was rejected in precincts Bush won, while one of every 27 ballots
was rejected in precincts Gore won.

In addition, Doig, a former Herald research editor who now holds the Knight
chair at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism specializing in
computer-assisted reporting, found a number of other interesting trends:

 Voting machinery played a large role in rejections.
Of the 51 precincts in which more than 20 percent of ballots were rejected,
45 of them used punch cards -- 88 percent. Of the 336 precincts in which
more than 10 percent were tossed out, 277 used punch cards -- 78 percent.

The overall rejection rate for the 43 counties using optical systems was 1.4
percent. The overall rejection rate for the 24 punch-card counties was 3.9
percent. That means that voters in punch-card counties, which included urban
Democratic strongholds such as Broward and Palm Beach counties, were nearly
three times as likely to have their ballots rejected as those in optical

 In dozens of Florida precincts, at least one out of every four ballots were
discarded as having no vote or too many votes for president.

 Nearly half of Gore's margin, more than 11,000 extra votes, would come from
Palm Beach County alone. The other counties that would give him more than
1,000 new votes are Broward, Miami-Dade, Duval and Pinellas. Of those, Bush
carried only Duval in the official tabulation.

 Palm Beach, home of the infamous butterfly ballot, and Duval, where
candidates' names were spread across two pages, had 31 percent of the
uncounted ballots, but only 12 percent of the total votes cast.

 Only 11 percent of precincts statewide recorded no discarded ballots.

 Only one county would actually switch preferences for president -- tiny
Madison, which officially went to Bush, but would have gone to Gore under
The Herald's projections. More than 10 percent of Madison's 4,000-plus
ballots were rejected.

The analysis provides some evidence to bolster the Bush camp's claim that
recounting some counties but not others is unfair to the Texas governor. For
example, the analysis shows that if discarded ballots were to be
reconsidered in Collier County, which Bush won, Bush might pick up about
1,000 net votes. Bush might also gain about 600 net votes in Lee County and
about 500 net votes in Nassau County.

In all, the analysis shows Bush gaining in 43 counties. But many of those
counties are rural and have relatively low numbers of votes, and the gains
would be quickly eclipsed by the numbers Gore might pick up in the 23 mostly
urban counties where the analysis shows he would show a net gain.

In only one county does the analysis show that neither candidate would gain
on his rival. That is Volusia County, where the ballots already have
undergone a controversial manual recount.


Doug Hattaway, a spokesman for the vice president's campaign, said the
results bolstered Gore's contention that the official results did not fairly
and accurately reflect the vote.

''The outcome of the presidential election rests on determining the will of
the voters of Florida, and this new evidence makes it extremely hard for the
Bush forces to ignore the people's will,'' he said.

Eskew, the spokesman for the Texas governor, flatly rejected it as
''hocus-pocus'' and ''an utterly unfounded scientific process.''

In addition to mistakenly assuming that voters handing in undervotes
intended to vote, he said, the analysis also ignores the notion that many of
the double-punched ballots may have been ''protest votes,'' intentionally

''That is a deeply flawed model that suggests statistical voodoo,'' he said.

There are, however, ways of analyzing the data that attempt to account for
the possibility of protest votes and deliberate nonparticipation in the
presidential balloting. Even so, Gore hypothetically still would have
collected enough votes to change the election's outcome.

Historically, about 2 percent of votes in presidential races don't count --
most often because voters skipped the race or their marks weren't recorded
by counting machines. Florida's rejection rate this year, however, was
around 3 percent.

The analysis tested even higher percentages of nonvotes, ranging from 10 to
90 percent of the 185,000 discarded ballots. In each instance, Gore still
earned more votes.

The analysis also attempted to discard all undervotes as intentional
nonvotes, counting only overvotes. That analysis was hampered by the fact
that 37 counties did not differentiate in their reports between ballots
discarded as undervotes and those discarded as overvotes.

But based on results from the 30 counties that did, 43 percent of the
uncounted votes were undervotes. If that pattern held statewide and every
undervote were tossed out, ignoring the entire chad issue, Gore still would
have a 13,000-vote margin.

Assuming the overvotes are protests and counting just the undervotes leads
to a similar result.


That analysis underscores, however, the importance of the debate over the
standards for judging ballots with dimpled chads, swinging door chads and
other variations.

For example, if the undervotes are counted using the experience of Broward's
manual recount, where approximately 20 percent of the undervote ballots
yielded a vote, Gore's net statewide total rises by about 1,500 -- enough to
overcome Bush's 537-vote official margin.

But if the standard used is the much stricter one that prevailed in Palm
Beach County, where only 5 percent of the undervote ballots yielded votes,
Gore's statewide net gain would be about 390 votes, not enough to overcome
Bush's lead.

That, however, is the only scenario in which Gore would not overtake Bush.
Overall, the analysis suggests generally that Gore's gains would top Bush's,
a challenge to assertions by the Bush camp that the Texas governor would
prevail in a statewide recount.

Republicans and some analysts didn't think the results were strong enough to
stand up.


MacManus, the USF political scientist, echoed Eskew's concerns about protest
and apathetic votes. She also said there were such wide variances in the
size and the social and economic mix of precincts that it would be too
difficult to extrapolate accurate results.

''In polls, you're used to a margin of error,'' she said. ''Here, there's no
room for margins of error.''

Others saw more validity in the analysis.

''You can always raise criticisms. You can never know for sure,'' said Alan
Agresti, a professor of statistics at the University of Florida who reviewed
the methodology. ''But I think when you do it at a very fine level like
this, at the precinct level, it's very interesting, a good projection of
what could have happened.''

Jim Kane, an independent pollster based in Fort Lauderdale, agreed that the
analysis contained many uncertainties. But he also said, ''I'm not shocked
that Gore would have won.''

In fact, Kane, Agresti and Doig agreed that the formula probably was
conservative, awarding Bush too large a share of the pie. The biggest
problems with rejected ballots were in low-income, mostly minority
neighborhoods statewide -- areas that voted heavily Democratic. That could
suggest that the same group, which included a larger percentage of
first-time and less educated voters, might have made similar errors in all

Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington,
D.C., think tank, also found the numbers persuasive.

''It's perfectly scientific, if it's presented in a sense as the most
massive statewide poll in Florida,'' he said. ''Sure, it's fun and games,
but it says something about what would have happened if everybody knew how
to vote.''

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