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Arduous ballot review winds up today

A special report on 175,010 florida ballots cast but not counted

It's an unprecedented double-check on democracy.

At a cost of nearly $1-million, some of the nation's top news organizations have spent the past year in a painstaking review of 175,010 Florida ballots from last year's disputed presidential election.

But even as the consortium prepares to publish its results tonight, one question dangles like a hanging chad:

Other than political junkies, will anyone care?

"There is a lingering curiosity to this story," said Matthew Felling, media director for the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a nonpartisan Washington, D.C., think tank. "But given the current (focus on terrorism and war in Afghanistan), it's impossible this story could sprout legs. All of our attention is focused, not only outside of Florida, but outside of the country."

The list of news organizations on board includes the St. Petersburg Times, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, CNN, Associated Press, the Tribune Co. (owner of the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and Orlando Sentinel, among others) and the Palm Beach Post.

The project will be released on some consortium members' Internet Web sites at 10 tonight and published in the St. Petersburg Times on Monday.

The goal: produce a detailed look at all the ballots tossed out during one of the most contentious presidential races in history.

Participants initially thought it would take a few months to complete. Now, nearly one year later, the results are ready for prime time.

Some may criticize publication of the recount results for undermining the chief executive at a time of war. But that criticism cuts both ways: Late last week, the St. Petersburg Times received more than 3,000 protest e-mails in a coordinated campaign by people suggesting the media was sitting on the results of the review.

Consortium members insist the recount remains relevant.

"Think of it this way: 175,000 ballots in Florida were tossed out in a controversial election decided by a razor-thin margin," said Neil Brown, managing editor of the St. Petersburg Times. "If we (the press) don't look at the ballots, who will?"

The goal, consortium representatives said, isn't to declare a winner.

Instead, the plan was to create a comprehensive database of all the rejected ballots, allowing each consortium member to analyze the data themselves and reach their own conclusions. (They would, however, consult each other to agree on some baseline numbers).

The survey will include undervotes (ballots where machines did not record a vote for president) and overvotes (ballots where votes for more than one candidate were recorded). On Monday, the database will be made available to the public online.

For journalists who build careers competing with other news outlets, this kind of close collaboration was alien territory.

"I've never heard of a thing where you work months on a project and your competitors have the story the same time you do," said Dan Keating, database editor for the Washington Post.

"In some ways, we're doing this more for history than any news cycle," added Keating, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who helped spearhead the recount project from its inception.

Even before the Sept. 11 attacks, the consortium faced serious obstacles: resistant elections officials, competition from a similar (consortium members say, less comprehensive) recount by the Miami Herald and USA Today, and the differing demands of its own members.

Concerns surfaced that results could be leaked by someone like cybergossip Matt Drudge. (During a consortium conference call last week, someone joked, "I called Drudge and he said he wasn't interested." "That's what we're afraid of," another voice retorted.)

Many decisions _ such as a Monday publication date to serve the Wall Street Journal, which doesn't print on weekends _ were no-brainers. Others, including how to allow the Associated Press to alert members without handing early recount information to CNN competitors such as MSNBC and Fox News Channel, took more discussion.

Eventually, newsmagazines such as Time and Newsweek bowed out, unable to bend their news needs and publishing cycles to suit the information embargo the consortium required.

And just as a mid-September publication date loomed, the terrorist attacks and war in Afghanistan forced another postponement.

Some wonder if this recount, coming at the heels of more than 15 other newspaper-led reviews of some of Florida's presidential ballots, would only add to the public's confusion over the 2000 election.

"They have sliced the data into so many pieces, they have virtually guaranteed . . . to leave people confused," said Jeffrey Toobin, a staff writer at the New Yorker who helped cover the election recount for ABC News and wrote a book about the event, Too Close to Call.

"The idea that there is some mathematical certainty out there is a myth," added Toobin, who nevertheless supports publication of the consortium's recount. "(Florida's election result) was, and is, a political process . . . and the Bush people just decided to get it done."

So why bother with another recount now?

"It's entirely possible that most readers may look at this and yawn," said Doyle McManus, Washington bureau chief for consortium member the Los Angeles Times, months ago. "(But) I think we all felt we had a duty to go back and find out what the ballots say."

The project's genesis

Reporters started trying to recount the Florida ballots from the moment the U.S. Supreme Court delivered its Dec. 12 decision ending the election.

At the Miami Herald, then-assistant managing editor/metro Mark Seibel turned to a young reporter and told her to start gathering names and contact information for every elections supervisor in the state.

Before long, the New York Times had approached the Herald about a joint effort; the St. Petersburg Times' Brown, then president of the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors, inquired about that group embarking on a recount.

The week of Dec. 19, Herald editors announced their conditions for collaboration with other outlets, insisting that they maintain control of the project.

"We were not interested in being part of a big organization that operated by consensus, because it would take too long," said Seibel, now managing editor at the Herald, which published its results in April.

The Herald's study of undervotes found that Bush would have won Florida, except using the most restrictive standard to count ballots.

"We felt it was important that we get it done while the Legislature was in session (to fuel election reform debate)," he added. "(Given the consortium's delays), it should be self-evident why we went our own way, now."

Wary of the sharp comments both sides traded in the press as the Herald/USA Today recount was published, consortium representatives now shy away from criticizing the Herald recount, which they say used less-thorough methods.

"(The consortium) survey will show in quite dramatic and comprehensive ways how the American system of elections failed voters," noted John Broder of the New York Times. "The Herald tried to answer the relatively simple question of who won. I think we're going much deeper than that."

Scrambling to find its own ballot reviewers, the consortium got a call from the National Opinion Research Center, a nonprofit survey research firm affiliated with the University of Chicago.

On Jan. 9, consortium members signed an agreement to work together on assembling the database, with the larger outlets agreeing to pay a larger amount of costs. (The St. Petersburg Times cites the newspaper's price tag at about $45,000). NORC began reviewing ballots Feb. 5.

One of the consortium's biggest challenges was actually getting the same number of rejected ballots each county reported after the first statewide machine recount Nov. 8.

Consortium members quickly learned there was little hope of getting ballots to match the number of rejected votes announced Nov. 8 _ approximately 176,000. Machine recounts to separate rejected ballots produced different numbers every time; when Duval County elections officials charged thousands of dollars to separate the ballots, the Herald filed suit to force their cooperation without fees.

In the end, NORC would review 175,010 ballots, obtaining nine fewer undervoted ballots than counties reported Nov. 8, and 1,427 fewer overvotes _ a difference of 1.25 percent.

The firm had three "coders" examine every undervote, making notes on the condition of the ballot, with a total 153 coders used overall (after a test with three coders, NORC used one coder to examine overvotes, because they were simpler to interpret). Extracting comments written on some of the coding sheets and the words written on some of the ballots resulted in further delays.

Another problem: Palm Beach Shores' Aaron M. Cohen, who said he worked as a coder for about two weeks analyzing ballots for NORC, wrote commentaries on the ballot recount for the Web site Democrats.com. A former trainer for the U.S. Census in Palm Beach County, he said his decision to speak out now shouldn't cast doubts on his coding work.

"A lot of the story remains untold about the election," said Cohen, who would like to see an investigation into the influence of malfunctioning vote machines. "Any attempt to use me to (discredit) the study says more about the people doing it than me."

Consortium members reported Cohen's commentaries to NORC, which investigated. (NORC, citing a confidentiality agreement, wouldn't reveal whether Cohen was a coder, but insisted the coding work was not tainted by ideological bias.)

A steering committee of editors in the consortium guided the process, communicating with each other via about a dozen conference calls and many more e-mails. Keating and the New York Times' Ford Fessenden, the project's other director, also spent lots of time traveling to Florida to train NORC coders, oversee the ballot sorting and more.

"Every single decision, we had to summon the tribal council, do the war dance and pray for consensus," Keating said. "The tradeoff . . . is that timeliness is not our thing. We are willing to take as long as it takes to get it absolutely right."

Suddenly, a bigger story

When they saw the July deadline come and go, the consortium decided to publish their stories Sept. 17.

Then came Sept. 11.

"We had a much bigger story to cover," said Kevin Walsh, AP's chief of bureaus for Florida. "Everybody involved with (the recount) got pulled away to cover" terrorism.

But others doubted the consortium's stated motives. Citing unnamed sources, the media industry Web site Inside.com reported Sept. 25 that consortium members had "a queasy sense that now is not the right time to publish information that could well question the legitimacy of the nation's commander in chief."

Stories in the Times-Union in Albany, N.Y., the Telegraph of London and Salon.com also accused the consortium of caving to concerns about undermining President Bush. And New York Times political writer Richard Berke wrote Sept. 23 that the recount "might have stoked . . . partisan tensions . . . but now seems utterly irrelevant."

One left-leaning Web site, www.actionagenda.com, even created a page allowing users to send a form e-mail to the St. Petersburg Times, Washington Post and other consortium members demanding they "release the results of the NORC Florida Ballot Study NOW!"

But e-mails exchanged among the steering committee reveal how the terrorist attacks disrupted some members, particularly the Wall Street Journal.

"Our New York offices are shut for the foreseeable future," wrote Phil Kuntz of the Journal in an e-mail Sept. 12. "It could be weeks, if not months, before we set foot in it . . . given that (the attacks) happened pretty much on the one street the newspaper is dedicated to covering."

Regardless of the reason for delay, the Center for Media and Public Affairs' Felling expects the recount stories to have little impact on Bush's position now.

"Bush's approval rating is at an impenetrable (near) 90 percent," he added. "Even if the recount study is bad news, it will barely make a dent."

Keeping results under wraps

Each news organization received CDs containing NORC's database on Nov. 3; NORC provided passwords to unlock the data the following Monday. To keep news outlets from spilling the beans early, consortium members are not allowed to call the Bush or Gore camps for comment until 4 p.m. today.

The AP will release stories to its members at 5 p.m. today, demanding that they not be used until 10 p.m. (Walsh declined to comment on what would happen if MSNBC or Fox News Channel broke the embargo; CNN did not provide a representative for comment).

At 10 p.m., newspapers also are expected to feature the stories on their Web sites and CNN is expected to start reporting the results. Newspapers also will print the stories in their Monday editions.

As the process nears its end, journalists who have worked months developing the project now find themselves reporting its results _ leading to unusual decisions about secrecy and what can be published.

Fearful of leaks, consortium members have tried to restrict the number of reporters at their own outlets who see ballot information. Consortium representatives have been told comments during recent conference calls are off-the-record; several representatives declined to comment specifically on last-minute wrangling with NORC over payment.

"When the media become a player in the story they're covering, it should always bring a certain discomfort," Felling said. "But if the government poured a million dollars into something like this, people would pause over that as well."

The cooperation involved brings another question: Could this lead to future media collaborations?

"It would be a temperate day in hell before we did this again, I think," joked Bill Hamilton, a projects editor at the Washington Post. "It's hard to imagine another situation like this one."

_ Information from Times wires and Times files was used in this report.

Media partners

Some of the nation's biggest and most prestigious media outlets came together to produce the Florida ballot review. Here's a list of participants.

The St. Petersburg Times _ avg. daily circulation: 312,695; owned by the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg.

The New York Times _ avg. daily circulation: 1,109,371; owned by the New York Times Co., which also owns the Boston Globe and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, among other newspapers.

The Washington Post _ avg. daily circulation: 759,864; owned by the Washington Post Co., which also owns Newsweek.

The Wall Street Journal _ avg. daily circulation, 1,780,605; owned by Dow Jones & Co.

Associated Press _ reaches 15,000 media outlets worldwide, including newspapers, radio, television and online services. The news service is a member-owned, not-for-profit cooperative.

CNN _ reached an average 1,268,000 viewers during daytime programming in October; owned by AOL Time Warner, which also owns Time magazine, the WB network, HBO, Time Warner Cable and Bay News 9, among other media outlets.

Tribune Co. _ owns 23 television stations, 50 Internet sites and 11 newspapers nationwide, including the Chicago Tribune, Orlando Sentinel, Los Angeles Times and South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

The Palm Beach Post _ avg. daily circulation: 157,829; owned by Cox Newspapers, which owns 17 daily newspapers nationwide, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Austin American-Statesman.

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