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Recount's lessons go beyond mere vote totals

When I heard that several U.S. newspapers, including this one, were joining forces for a review of Florida's uncounted ballots from last year's election, it seemed like beating a dead horse.

After all, George W. Bush is president. Al Gore is off somewhere doing who knows what. What more is there to know?

But after reading the results I think they are a good public service. They answer two questions definitively for the history books:

(1) The U.S. Supreme Court did not "steal" the election for Bush when it halted the vote-counting. Under the rules in effect, under the previous order of the state courts, Bush would have won Florida regardless.

(2) However, of the 175,010 Floridians whose ballots were rejected, enough of them clearly intended to vote for Gore to have swung the state _ and therefore, the White House _ his way.

Both Republicans and Democrats can claim some vindication.

The official Republican stance, of course, is that reasonable people knew Bush was the winner a long time ago. Only the liberal media and whiny Democrats have kept it alive.

As for Democratic diehards, this recount confirms what they believed all along:

More Floridians, in their hearts, intended to vote for Gore than Bush. Had their votes been properly cast and recorded, he would be president.

As for the rest of us who have been occupied with more important things lately, why should we care about this study?

Because there are worthwhile conclusions to be drawn _ and not about who "really won." (If anything, this recount again showed that who won depends entirely on which ballot standards you use.)

The first conclusion is that the 2000 election simply was closer than our mechanical ability to measure it.

Yes, we should narrow our margin of error. We're already taking steps toward better machines and more uniform standards. But it will still be possible to have an election too close to call.

The second conclusion is that 175,000 Floridians cared enough to vote, wanted to vote, tried to vote, but spoiled their ballots so that their votes did not count.

Maybe the rest of us (if we're all sure WE voted correctly) can look down our noses, and feel all smart and superior. Or maybe we should ask: If that many people got it wrong, then shouldn't we be fixing it?

The fight over these spoiled ballots was at the heart of the Bush-Gore controversy. Should we count only correctly executed ballots? Or should we also count flawed ballots where the voter's intent was clear enough?

In 2000, the narrower standard helped the Republicans. Gore's voters were more likely to vote twice, or otherwise ruin their ballot. Maybe that was a function of demographics, or education, or inexperience. But one day, in a different kind of election, the situation will be reversed. The worm always turns.

For now, our state's principal answer is better machines. That will help. It might make the margin of error smaller. It will be harder to spoil a ballot. But it will still be possible to screw up the optical-scan ballot, or to be frustrated by the touch screen computer that is beeping at you, and just walk away.

So on both points _ precision of counting, and voter confusion _ our technology still will be fallible. It will have limits. Sooner or later, another election will be a virtual tie, and it will be settled by lawyers and courts.

Was this precinct counted twice? How come that precinct's computer was accidentally disconnected for 10 minutes? Who supplied these No. 1 pencils, instead of No. 2?

When that happens, will we again be a "laughingstock" or a "failure"?

No. Just the opposite. The bottom line from last year's election remains true: The world's greatest nation, its leadership in doubt, waited patiently, for a month, for the rule of law to run its course, and then transferred power peacefully to the designated winner. That is not something to take for granted.

_ You can reach Howard Troxler at (727) 893-8505 or at