WASHINGTON — If the U.S. Supreme Court had allowed Florida's courts to finish their abortive recount of last year's deadlocked presidential election, President Bush probably still would have won by several hundred votes, a comprehensive study of the uncounted ballots has found.
But if the recount had been held under new vote-counting rules that Florida and other states now are adopting--rules aimed at recording the intentions of as many voters as possible--Democratic candidate Al Gore probably would have won, although by an even thinner margin, the study found.
The study provides evidence that more Florida voters attempted to vote for Gore than for Bush--but so many Gore voters marked their ballots improperly that Bush received more valid votes. As a result, under rules devised by the Florida Supreme Court and accepted by the Gore campaign at the time, Bush probably would have won a recount, the study found.
Since the study was launched, the nation's debate over the Florida recount has cooled and Bush, whose legitimacy as president already was accepted by a large majority in January, has won massive public approval for his leadership of the war against terrorism.
The study, a painstaking inspection of 175,010 Florida ballots that were not included in the state's certified tally, found as many as 23,799 additional, potentially valid votes for Gore or Bush.
The significance of these ballots depends on what standards are used to weigh their validity. Under some recount rules, Bush wins. Under others, Gore wins.
But in almost every case, the outcome still is a virtual dead heat, with the two candidates separated by no more than a few hundred votes out of nearly 6 million cast in the state.
A little more than a year ago, after one of the most tumultuous election nights in the nation's history, Americans awoke to discover that the presidential race was--improbably--deadlocked.
Florida, with 25 electoral votes, was too close to call. And without Florida, neither Bush nor Gore had a majority of electoral votes.
The official results, which the state certified over Democratic protests, were: Bush 2,912,790, Gore 2,912,253. The margin of 537 votes, less than 0.01% of the total votes cast, triggered an automatic recount.
For 36 days, politicians and lawyers argued over whether and how to recount the state's votes. The Florida Supreme Court ordered a recount to begin; the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the recount to stop. On Dec. 13, Gore conceded. On Jan. 20, Bush took office as president.
But thousands of potentially valid votes remained uncounted. And, as a result, the Florida election's outcome remained a matter of debate.
In January, eight major news organizations commissioned a definitive examination of the uncounted ballots in an effort to answer some of the outstanding questions and see if lessons could be learned for future elections.
The review found that:
* Precincts with large numbers of black voters were measurably more likely to produce spoiled ballots than precincts with few black voters. The data cannot explain why. However, the study debunked the belief that older voters are error-prone. Across the state, precincts with younger voters had higher error rates.
* Bush probably would have won any recount of "undervotes," ballots that were rejected because they registered no clear vote for any presidential candidate. By contrast, Gore would have won most recount scenarios that included "overvotes," ballots that showed votes for more than one candidate. However, Gore's lawyers never pressed for overvotes to be recounted.
* Ballot design was a key factor. Although the Florida fiasco initially focused on the "butterfly ballot" for punch cards in Palm Beach County, the voters' error rate was even higher in some counties that used more modern optical scanning systems but had equally confusing ballots. Most of the errors occurred in 18 counties where ballots spread the presidential candidates across two pages or two columns.
* Hand recounts can be reliable, but only if the rules are clear. The researchers who examined the ballots agreed on the marks they saw more than 97% of the time. The disagreements came mostly when they were asked to judge whether a voter who failed to punch a clear hole in a ballot had left a "dimple," an indentation on the card.
* Some Florida counties handled their ballots so carelessly after election night that county officials could not say with any certainty which ballots had been counted and which had not.
White House spokeswoman Nicolle Devenish, speaking on behalf of Bush, said: "The American people moved on a long time ago. This latest media recount was an expensive undertaking that turned up additional inconclusive data. The election was settled last year."
Even before the results were made public, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said his boss considers the issue ancient history. "It's over," Fleischer said.