On April 4, USA Today announced the results of its long-anticipated re-examination of Florida ballots (done in conjunction with the Miami Herald) with the headline: "Newspapers' Recount Shows Bush Prevailed in Fla. Vote."
The headline touting a Bush win referred to the paper's estimate of what would have happened if the U.S. Supreme Court had not blocked the hand recount of 60 Florida counties that had been ordered by the state Supreme Court. The paper found that Bush likely would have won such a recount.
But USA Today's investigation also found something else-- something it chose not to tell its readers: The official hand counts in the remaining seven Florida counties, completed before the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in, had missed hundreds, even thousands of potential Gore votes. If those votes had been properly counted, under two of the four counting standards used by the paper to determine valid votes, Gore would have won the entire state by 300 to 400 votes.
The paper examined ballots from all 67 counties in Florida, but it only *reported* the results from 60 counties where hand counts were unfinished (except on the paper's website, USAToday.com). The paper's decision to exclude its findings in seven counties was based on its strategy of trying to answer only one narrow question: What would have happened if the U.S. Supreme Court had not stepped in and stopped the manual recounts in Florida?
The paper therefore included only the *official* results from the seven counties, even though its own investigation found that the official results had potentially missed enough Gore votes to change the outcome of the election. None of this was revealed to USA Today's readers. The April 4 article explained that the "official counts were final and would not have changed if the U.S. Supreme Court had not stopped the hand recount."
In making this decision, USA Today failed to report some of the most newsworthy aspects of its own ballot review. The Miami Herald, which worked with USA Today on the study, also played down the fact that the re-examination showed that Gore got more votes than Bush under two of the four standards (4/4/01). But the Florida paper at least provided its readers some valuable information about the limitations of the official recounts from the seven counties.
The Herald explained in an April 5 follow-up story that canvassing boards in Broward and Palm Beach counties "could have credited hundreds more ballots to the Democrat if they had counted every dimple, pinprick and hanging chad as a vote, a review of ballots in both counties shows. In Broward, where the official hand recount added 567 votes to Gore's county lead over Bush, a Herald-sponsored ballot review found that Gore's margin could have been 1,475, if every mark had been counted as a valid vote. In Palm Beach, where the official hand recount added a net gain of 174 votes to Gore's tally, the Herald-sponsored review found a potential Gore net gain of 1,081."
The Herald also reported on April 4 that the standards used in the original manual recount were not applied consistently: "The review found that canvassing boards in those counties discarded hundreds of ballots that bore marks no different from those on scores of ballots that were accepted as valid presidential votes. Had those ballots instead been counted as valid votes, allowing dimples, pinpricks and hanging chads, Gore would be in the White House today."
USA Today's investigation does indeed provide evidence that if the U.S. Supreme Court had not stopped the statewide manual recount ordered by the Florida Supreme Court, George W. Bush might well still have been declared the winner of the Florida election, and could still have become president. This is a newsworthy finding, and it deserved to be reported.
But the larger question of the Florida election is who actually received more votes. The statewide totals USA Today chose not to report do much more to answer that question than the paper's more limited look at the effect of the U.S. Supreme Court decision.
USA Today justified not reporting its statewide results by saying that it "did not want to substitute its judgment for that of election officials." If that's the case, why recount the votes at all? After all, it was "election officials," including Florida secretary of state Katherine Harris and the Supreme Court majority, who decided that most ballots that needed to be manually recounted should be ignored. If, on the other hand, election officials are not infallible, then a news outlet should present as much information as it has about what actually went on during the election.
While the effect of the U.S. Supreme Court decision is an important question, the question of who actually got more votes in Florida is even more important. By not reporting vital information, USA Today has violated journalistic principles and further confused the public about a subject that surely needed no more confusion.
ACTION: Please contact USA Today and let them know that concealing the full statewide results of its investigation of undervotes was a disservice to readers.
CONTACT:Hal Ritter, Managing News EditorUSA Todayhritter@usatoday.comPhone: (703) 907-7121Fax: (703) 247-3100