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The votes not counted

Since Sept. 11, Americans have had more important things to worry about than another examination of the disputed 2000 presidential election. Although a variety of flaws in the voting process cast a cloud over the decisive presidential results in Florida, a country at war has since rallied around President Bush. Yet the review of the presidential vote in Florida, a task undertaken last January by a consortium of major U.S. news organizations including the St. Petersburg Times, can't be dismissed as irrelevant, old news. As President Bush has said, the war against terrorism is a battle for the very survival of our democratic freedoms. The most fundamental guarantee of our representative democracy is the right to choose our leaders through free, open and accurate elections. If any individual or group is denied equal access to the ballot box, our democracy suffers.

This review did not produce a clear-cut answer to the question of whether George W. Bush or Al Gore really received the most votes in Florida, nor was that its primary intent. Too many variables, including the many possible standards by which disputed votes could be counted or deemed invalid, make that seemingly simple question impossible to answer in a definitive way.

Instead, the project had broader, forward-looking aims: Only by identifying and correcting the flaws in the 2000 election process can we ensure that our elections will be as fair, accurate and conclusive as possible in 2002 and beyond.

Several reforms and technical improvements already made will prevent a repeat of some of the worst controversies of the 2000 presidential election in Florida. There will be no more disputes over chad, whether dimpled, hanging or otherwise. State lawmakers mandated the elimination of punch-card ballots, which will be replaced by optical scanners or touch-screen machines in all remaining counties in time for the 2002 elections. Besides dispensing with chad and the controversies they can cause, the modern voting equipment also reduces overvotes and undervotes by alerting voters to any discrepancies with their ballots. New state rules also will bring uniformity to standards for determining what constitutes a valid vote, and when manual recounts are warranted.

All of those changes will go a long way toward eliminating the possibility of any future embarrassments similar to the one Florida endured after last year's presidential vote. However, some other problems still haven't been adequately addressed. Many qualified voters were denied ballots last November, either because their names were improperly purged from voter rolls or because their names were registered at the wrong precinct. State election officials are to complete a comprehensive revision of the voter rolls by July. However, the changes mandated so far may do little to ensure that voters show up at the precincts where their names are registered. And while new rules should reduce the controversies over the handling of absentee ballots from overseas, little has been done to prevent partisan manipulation of domestic absentee ballots.

As for the review of the 175,000 rejected ballots, single-minded partisans on both sides are free to embrace or reject the results as they see fit. Republicans can use the findings to reinforce the view that Bush would have won a narrow victory even if the U.S. Supreme Court had not intervened to halt a recount being conducted under terms favored by Gore. At the same time, Democrats can use the findings to support their contention that more Floridians went to the polls a year ago intending to vote for Gore than for Bush. Gore was especially hurt by the rejection of ballots as a result of overcounts, such as when a voter punched Gore's name and wrote it in. Overcounts got much less attention than the controversies over dangling chad and other forms of undercounts, but they constituted an even larger share of the problems with 2000 ballots.

Disputes over the historically close 2000 election will continue long after this review is on the shelves. Politics, like sports, is a subject for never-ending debate, and even the news organizations that worked together to complete this study haven't drawn identical conclusions from the data. On one subject, however, there should be no dispute. The Times and our partners set out to use the most objective and valid standards possible to review the more than 175,000 ballots that were rejected in Florida, and we followed the evidence wherever it led. Any claims of bias in the conception or execution of the project are the product of sore losers, or sore winners. This ballot review will have served its purpose if it helps to ensure that the winner of the 2004 presidential election is clearly determined on Election Night and not weeks afterward.

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