1. Archive

Why do we look back now? Because we choose to know

So much has changed since a group of newspapers embarked on this project that the question arises: why? With our safety and prosperity in peril, why proceed with an examination of all the Florida ballots that were cast but not counted in last year's presidential election?

For all that has changed, the choice is the same it was a year ago _ between knowing the facts and speculating about them. We choose to know.

Within days of the most closely contested presidential election in Florida history, editors at some of America's major newspapers and other news organizations started calling each other about an idea.

Could we set aside our normal competitive instincts and work together on a project to examine every uncounted ballot in the Florida presidential election? We would hire experts without partisan loyalty or bias to conduct a review so thorough and authoritative that it would be beyond dispute.

Such a group project would benefit the news organizations, because we would share the bill; the 67 supervisors of elections in Florida, because they could deal with one group rather than hordes of individual reporters; and the voters, because they would get definitive information.

We came close to organizing a single, coordinated effort, although the Miami Herald (along with the other Knight Ridder newspapers) and USA Today went their own way. That project reviewed some of the uncounted ballots, where machines detected no vote for president, and some of the ballots where more than one preference was recorded.

Meanwhile, the larger effort sponsored by the St. Petersburg Times and other news organizations churned on. The group hired the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago to physically examine every ballot that was cast but not counted in the Florida presidential election.

As is common with major pieces of enterprise reporting, the project took more time and money than was originally projected. The total bill for the research center's work will be nearly $1-million. Our share at the St. Petersburg Times will be around $45,000; we considered it part of our responsibility as Florida's largest daily newspaper to help organize and finance the project.

Working by consensus, satisfying different organizations that usually compete against each other, did slow things down a bit. But most of the delay was due simply to the painstaking nature of having 175,010 ballots examined one at a time. Anticipated completion dates slipped from late spring, to mid-summer and finally to early fall.

And then came Sept. 11. By the time the researchers finished their work, the country was consumed with another news story, and so were the news organizations. One partner, the Wall Street Journal, even had to leave its offices near the World Trade Center and publish from a back-up location in New Jersey. So the group delayed release of the data for another few weeks _ until now.

That decision will likely provoke criticism from both sides. Some partisan Democrats have complained that we are "suppressing" news that could show Al Gore really did win the election. On the other side, some Republicans will accuse us of persisting with a spoil-sport assault on President Bush even at a time of national crisis.

We have made adjustments to our plan for this work because of the events since Sept. 11. We publish this project in its own section, all on a single day, rather than break it into installments over several days. This approach lets readers study the material as their time and interest allow, so that they come to their own conclusions about the election last year and about how we should conduct elections to come.

I have no clue what readers will make of this special report. Some will probably be even more convinced that justice was done _ or denied _ in last year's election. Some will likely decide that even now, the results are so tangled that it is impossible to tell. Many just won't care.

But I am pretty sure that this project will not undermine either our democracy or the president who leads it. The tragedy of Sept. 11 assures that President Bush will be judged not by how he came to office, but by how he performs in it. And for my money, this project provides powerful testimony to the great resilience and self-confidence of a place that is willing to hold its elections up to unprecedented public scrutiny.

Journalism is sometimes described as "history in a hurry." Clearly, this project did not happen quickly, but it does help illuminate an important chapter in American political history. Simply put, that is part of our job.

Paul Tash

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