Q: When the votes were recounted in Florida, who won the 2000 presidential election?
A: Nobody can say for sure who might have won. A full, official recount of all votes statewide could have gone either way, but one was never conducted.
According to a massive months-long study commissioned by eight news organizations in 2001, George W. Bush probably still would have won even if the U.S. Supreme Court had allowed a limited statewide recount to go forward as ordered by Florida’s highest court.
Bush also probably would have won had the state conducted the limited recount of only four heavily Democratic counties that Al Gore asked for, the study found.
On the other hand, the study also found that Gore probably would have won, by a range of 42 to 171 votes out of 6 million cast, had there been a broad recount of all disputed ballots statewide. However, Gore never asked for such a recount. The Florida Supreme Court ordered only a recount of so-called "undervotes," about 62,000 ballots where voting machines didn’t detect any vote for a presidential candidate.
None of these findings are certain. County officials were unable to deliver as many as 2,200 problem ballots to the investigators that news organizations hired to conduct the recount. There were also small but measurable differences in the way that the "neutral" investigators counted certain types of ballots, an indication that different counters might have come up with slightly different numbers. So it is possible that either candidate might have emerged the winner of an official recount, and nobody can say with exact certainty what the "true" Florida vote really was.
The study cost nearly $1 million and was the most thorough and comprehensive news-media review of the Florida balloting. It was sponsored by the Associated Press, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, CNN, St. Petersburg Times, Palm Beach Post, Washington Post and the Tribune Co., which owns papers including the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Orlando Sentinel and Baltimore Sun. The news organizations hired the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago to look at each untallied ballot. Trained investigators examined 175,010 ballots provided by local election officials. The media consortium then analyzed the raw data produced by NORC and drew conclusions. The result, released Nov. 11, 2001, was something of a muddle.
The Associated Press reported the findings this way:
AP: A vote-by-vote review of untallied ballots in the 2000 Florida presidential election indicates George W. Bush would have narrowly prevailed in the partial recounts sought by Al Gore, but Gore might have reversed the outcome – by the barest of margins – had he pursued and gained a complete statewide recount.
The Palm Beach Post put it more dramatically:
Palm Beach Post: Al Gore was doomed.
He couldn’t have caught George W. Bush even if his two best chances for an official recount had played out.
Similar Conclusions, Uncertain Results
An earlier study by a different media consortium reached similar conclusions. That study was conducted by a group that included the Miami Herald, USA Today and Knight Ridder newspapers. As USA Today said of the findings on May 11, 2001:
USA Today: George W. Bush would have won a hand recount of all disputed ballots in Florida’s presidential election if the most widely accepted standard for judging votes had been applied.
The newspaper said that Gore might have won narrowly if lenient standards were used that counted every mark on a ballot. "But," it said, "Gore could not have won without a hand count of overvote ballots, something that he did not request."
Although their conclusions were similar, the Miami Herald study and the later and larger study came up with different numbers, evidence of the uncertainties involved. An official recount might well have come up with yet a third set of numbers. The uncertain nature of the later study’s findings, which could well apply to both, was aptly and poetically expressed by Palm Beach Post columnist Frank Cerabino:
Cerabino: Like sorting grains of sand on a windy day, getting a definitive recount of Florida’s votes in last year’s presidential election has turned out to be an exercise in frustration.
In a statewide election decided by hundreds, maybe only dozens, of votes, the limitations of the voting machinery – compounded with sometimes sloppy custody of the ballots and the slight but measurable biases of allegedly neutral human tabulators – make getting precise vote totals virtually impossible.
Tanner, Robert and Sharon L. Crenson. "Florida Review Shows Narrowest Margin." The Associated Press, 11 Nov 2001.
Engelhardt, Joel and Elliot Jaspin and Christine Stapleton. "Under the two most likely scenarios, Bush Wins Florida." Palm Beach Post, 11 Nov. 2001.
"Florida recount study: Bush still wins: Study reveals flaws in ballots, voter errors may have cost Gore victory." CNN.com, 2001.
Cauchon, Dennis and Jim Drinkard. "Florida voter errors cost Gore the election." USA Today, 11 May 2001.
Cerabino, Frank. "Study concludes accurate election recount virtually impossible." Cox News Service, 11 Nov. 2001.