"Let me tell you about Florida politicians. I make them out of whole cloth, just like a tailor makes a suit. I get their name in the newspaper. I get them some publicity and get them on the ballot. Then after the election, we count the votes. And if they don't turn out right, we recount them. and recount them again. Until they do."
Edward G. Robinson's Johnny Rocco
to Humphrey Bogart's character in
the 1948 classic thriller "Key Largo".
``Johnny Rocco'' would have been amused by this newspaper's painstaking and expensive effort to bring clarity to the confusion that surrounded Florida's presidential balloting last Nov. 7.
Now don't get me wrong. I'm not quoting a make-believe mobster to imply that anybody rigged the outcome of Florida's presidential election. As dire as this state's problems that Election Day, outright fraud hasn't been alleged.
But if there is a stark, unmistakable point that emerges from the five-day series of reports on The Herald's ballot review, it is this: Our votes are not sacrosanct.
Thousands of otherwise understandable ballots were misinterpreted, improperly discarded or just plain ignored for reasons that ranged from slipshod procedures to human fatigue. What really made the difference in this election -- as ``Johnny Rocco'' knew -- is that when outcomes are this close, what matters is who counts the votes and how.
Understandably, that conclusion isn't enough to satisfy many Americans, who looked to this review in the hope that it would settle once and forever the debate about who ``really won'' Florida (and thus the White House) as opposed to who legally won it as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court's intervention.
But as Herald senior writer Martin Merzer put it on the first day of the package: ``The multiple layers of The Herald's findings allowed both parties to claim validation of their positions during the protracted election dispute.''
How could that be? The Herald set out to answer a simple question: What would have happened had the Court allowed the recounts to go ahead? The assumption was to provide a range of results according to the various standards applied by different counties for tabulating these ballots. After months of work and some $450,000 in expenses, the banner headline in last Wednesday's paper declared: Review shows ballots say Bush.
And the headline was absolutely accurate, sort of. If the review simply picked up where the recount had left off in December, George W. Bush actually added votes to his official victory under the most commonly used standards for counting damaged ballots (ironically, standards that his campaign opposed).PANDORA'S BOX
Review showed George W. Bush won the Florida election, sort of.
But -- and here's where Pandora's Box opened -- if the recount had been started from scratch in each of Florida's 67 counties, The Herald concluded ``Gore would be in the White House today.''
So rather than settling the debate, the review has sent many partisans on each side scrambling back to their trenches to launch new salvos. Carolyn Kay of Chicago wrote: ``So tell me why your headline says that Bush won Florida when it's obvious later in the story that Gore actually won. Is that why it took so long for the story to come out? Did you have to consult with [Bush advisors] Karl Rove and Karen Hughes on the wording? You are the worst kind of newspaper.''
``Your reporting is irresponsible,'' added another. It was signed, ``P. Glass, NYC, who is saddled with a dangerous and illegal `president' thanks to your pitiful excuse for a U.S. state.'' That view was shared by Gene Goffin of Crawford, Colo., who concluded his letter by saying: ``The good thing about global warming is that most of Florida will disappear.''
But the fact that even the most exhaustive review of Florida's ballots so far has failed to settle the controversy makes the larger point, which is this: The narrowness of the margin separating the two candidates far exceeded the ability of the state's electoral machinery to measure voter sentiment.
And other states shouldn't sit smugly by and join in the ``Flori-duh'' jokes. Nearly identical problems emerged in Oregon and New Mexico and in scores of counties across the nation. Our voting system is woefully ill-equipped to ensure that every vote counts.
This point is apt to be underscored even more dramatically when The Herald and other news organizations complete a review of those ballots that were discarded because more than one mark for president was detected by scanning machines, so-called overvotes.
For thousands of Floridians who tried to exercise their votes, the system failed. In many cases, the fault may lie with them for failing to follow even the simplest instructions.
But for others, their ballots were uncounted because of the system. Even the task of sorting ballots proved nearly impossible. When The Herald requested that county election supervisors make the undervote ballots available, only a handful were able to produce the same number that they'd reported to the state on election night. Without explanation, literally thousands of ballots were unaccounted for.
The U.S. Supreme Court was disturbed enough by the stark variations among the counties in the standards they used for tallying ballots to nullify the recount. But The Herald review found that was just the start of it. Even within counties the standards varied wildly and without reason. The reviewers found that a ballot containing markings that might have been counted by a canvassing board at 10 a.m. could be rejected 12 hours later. Why? Fatigue, perhaps, or a desire to stop quibbling with partisan observers.
WILL OF THE PEOPLE
A congressional attempt to reform the voting system collapsed.
In a nation built on the principle that the will of the people must prevail, these failures cry out for resolution. Yet, so far, the steps taken to solve all but the most obvious problem -- abolishing punch cards -- have been halting at both the state and federal levels.
Congress last week abandoned efforts to set up a select committee to investigate the full range of problems in the voting system because Republicans refused to agree to Democrats' reasonable demands that the parties share power equally on the panel.
In Tallahassee, prospects are brighter for reforms, but not perfect. Consensus seems to be forming around a package that would create a uniform, statewide ballot and replace the punch-card systems in those 41 counties that use them with optical-scanning machines. Those machines are similar to those that tally lotto-ticket entries.
Yet the review showed that even optical scanners are far from perfect. Tiny smudges will produce a spoiled ballot. And voters who don't follow instructions perfectly to fill in the ``bubble'' with a special pencil are disfranchised.
With Bush's legitimacy settled, reforms may be easier.
Finally, the Legislature has been inert when it comes to addressing the fundamental question posed by the Supreme Court. There have yet been no attempts to establish strict standards that every county must use in tallying disputed ballots or to relax unreasonably tight deadlines for counting. As important as it is to settle elections speedily, the need for accuracy is far more imperative.
Some of the foot-dragging can be traced to a reluctance among Republican leaders in Congress and in Tallahassee to admit that the system broke down Nov. 7, for fear of adding to the charge that Mr. Bush's win was illegitimate.
The Herald's review should set those concerns to rest. Some critics may still charge that he is an ``accidental'' president, as The Economist magazine declared, taking into account such glitches as Palm Beach County's butterfly ballot (where votes intended for Gore wound up in Pat Buchanan's column). But those accidents don't trump his legitimacy.
Faith in the democratic process is only as strong as faith in the voting systems to deliver a correct result. Now that the ``who won?'' question is settled, it's time to move on to fixing that system.
If leaders fail to do that, ``Johnny Rocco'' may turn out to have been a prophet.