When the Florida Supreme Court ordered a statewide recount in December, based on Gore's petition, it too focused only on undervotes--drawing a dissent from Chief Justice Charles T. Wells. "How about the overvotes?" he asked.
When the U.S. Supreme Court took Bush's appeal of the case, Justice John Paul Stevens asked the same question of Gore's lawyer, David Boies.
"Nobody asked for a contest of the overvotes," Boies explained. "Once you get two votes, that ballot doesn't get counted for the presidency."
Ironically, Bush's lawyers, in their brief to the U.S. Supreme Court, said one of their objections to the Florida recount was that it didn't consider potentially valid overvotes.
The Supreme Court majority agreed that the absence of the overvotes was a flaw in the Florida court's ruling. If the high court had, instead, ordered Florida authorities to design a comprehensive recount--one that included the overvotes--the outcome might well have been a victory for Gore.
Close Race Triggered Automatic Recount
The study found another wrinkle that might have aided Gore.
Florida's vote was so close on election night that state law required an automatic retabulation. But officials in 16 counties using optical scanning systems never recounted their ballots; instead, they merely rechecked the electronic records of their election night machine count.
Over five weeks of recounts and court battles, Bush's unofficial lead rose and fell almost by the day, at one point dropping to just 286 votes. If the 16 counties had recounted their ballots and included overvotes in their tallies, Gore would have taken the lead, at least briefly, by 48 votes, the study shows.
The study answers another question that has lingered since December: Could Gore have won if he had asked for recounts of the undervotes in counties other than the four he picked?
Some of Gore's advisors worried that they should have sought a manual recount in Duval County, for example, which registered 5,090 undervote ballots (in addition to its 21,855 overvote ballots). But Gore would have lost ground had they done so. The study found that Bush would have gained as many as 834 additional votes in a Duval County recount, mostly from undervotes.
This study was commissioned by Tribune Co., owner of The Times; Associated Press; Cable News Network; the New York Times; the Palm Beach Post; the St. Petersburg Times; the Wall Street Journal; and the Washington Post.
The review was conducted by the National Opinion Research Center, a nonpartisan research organization affiliated with the University of Chicago. Researchers trained and directed by NORC inspected 175,010 ballots and recorded their characteristics in a series of computer databases.
Each media organization independently analyzed the data collected by NORC. The full NORC database will be released to the public today on the NORC Web site, http://www.norc.org, to enable readers to examine and analyze the data themselves.
NORC prepared separate computer studies to assess the reliability of the data. Those studies indicated that the researchers agreed more than 97% of the time when inspecting the ballots, "a high degree of accuracy," according to Kirk Wolter, a senior vice president of NORC and director of the project.
However, Wolter warned that the outcomes are so close that they cannot conclusively show who got the most votes. "It's too close to call," he said. "One could never know from this study alone who won the election."
Unlike a public opinion poll, the media-commissioned study has no "margin of error" because researchers inspected every available uncounted ballot, not a representative sample. But the study still is not entirely precise because Florida's counties could not locate every uncounted ballot.
Hard to Gauge Exact Number of Bad Ballots
Florida's state government doesn't record how many ballots were invalidated on election day, and county records are incomplete in some cases. The best estimate is that about 176,400 ballots were rejected as undervotes or overvotes. The NORC study thus included more than 99% of the total.
In some cases, county officials could not be certain which ballots had been counted because every time a punch card ballot is run through a tabulating machine, one or more of its paper "chads" can be dislodged.
One county, Volusia, posed a particularly complex problem. Volusia completed a hand recount after election night, and the results are part of the state's certified tally. County officials subsequently could not determine which ballots had been included in their manual recount and which had not. Accordingly, Volusia's certified totals were used in the study rather than any new data from those ballots.
Times staff writer Lisa Getter contributed to this report.
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On the Web
More on the Florida ballot analysis is available on the Web at: http://www.latimes.com/recount
* A database of all Florida vote totals, based on the scenarios developed for the project.
* Archived audio, video, photos, graphics and special reports from last year's election dispute.
* Photos of ballots and typical errors.
* Links to a Web site where you can download the data and software to do your own analysis.