Florida has chance to redeem itself

George W. Bush did not win the 2000 election in Florida and the presidency because the United States Supreme Court halted the hand recount of ballots with him ahead by 537 votes. A study by eight news organizations found that Bush would likely still have prevailed with a full recount under the rules set by the Florida Supreme Court at the time. Bush won and Democratic candidate Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold Gore2020 Democrats release joint statement ahead of Trump's New Hampshire rally Deregulated energy markets made Texas a clean energy giant Gun safety is actually a consensus issue MORE lost because under those state rules, the recount did not consider some 114,000 overvotes, where more than one candidate seemingly was marked on the ballot.

Although it was not possible to ascertain voter intention on all such ballots, the intention was evident on many tens of thousands of overvotes, the great majority of which were cast for Gore. Florida election officials this year have the opportunity to rectify the mistakes of 2000, because current rules announced by Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner include both undervotes and overvotes in a hand recount of the ballots.

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Florida election officials rejected as invalid nearly 180,000 ballots in 2000, or about 3 percent of the total 6,000,000 votes across the nation. About one-third of the rejected ballots were undervotes, where a vote could not be accurately determined from the machine count. Florida election officials manually recounted these ballots, poring over the infamous hanging chads and dimples on punch card ballots to ascertain whether they could detect a missed vote. About two-thirds of the rejected ballots were overvotes. The machine recount discarded overvotes even if a voter punched in “Al Gore” and then wrote down “Al Gore” to ensure that there would be no mistaking their intention. The state included none of these ballots in the hand recount under rules at the time.

My 2001 study of the 2000 election in Florida for the United States Commission on Civil Rights found that African Americans, who voted 95 percent for Gore in the state, were heavily overrepresented among rejected overvoted ballots. Had all such ballots been recounted by hand it is highly likely that Gore would have easily overcome the lead Bush had from recounted undervoted ballots. My study remains available online.

Three years later, political science professor Walter Mebane of the University of Michigan validated my findings in a ballot by ballot study of every uncounted overvoted vote for the presidency across the state of Florida in the 2000 election. He found that “more than 50,000 votes that were intended to go to either Bush or Gore but instead were discarded.” If all such ballots had been tallied in the election, Mebane concluded in his research that “Gore would have won by more than 30,000 votes.”

Florida election officials this year have an opportunity to fully determine voter intention on all ballots in the hand recount that will likely follow the machine recount in the races for senator and agriculture commissioner and possibly for governor as well. A spread of 0.25 percent or less between the candidates after the machine recount is completed will automatically trigger the hand recount under state law. Florida election officials must examine impartially and as carefully as possible voter intention on each overvoted ballot rejected in the machine count. Republicans must embrace such intense scrutiny of voter intention.

Republicans celebrated when a reexamination of overvoted ballots in the 2017 contest for the 94th district for the Virginia House of Delegates changed a Democratic victory to a tie vote. The Republican candidate then won a random drawing to break the tie, which sealed party control of the House by a single seat. “The outcome is clear,” said winning candidate David Yancey. The outcome will be equally clear in the manual recount in the election in Florida this year if officials apply the same standards of exacting review of overvotes that gave Yancy his victory in Virginia.

Allan Lichtman is an election forecaster and distinguished professor of history at American University. Follow him on Twitter @AllanLichtman.