Ballot Box

Who Will Win the Recount?

Author’s Note: This is an updated version of the article I posted on Monday titled Who Lost Florida?that reflects the corrections explained in Recount!I’ve also added some new projections based on what might happen in the event of a statewide recount using the Palm Beach County standard, which rejects ballots with dimpled chad. My new conclusion based on the implications of the Florida Supreme Court’s ruling: Bush probably wins anyhow.

Last weekend The Miami Herald ran a fascinating story about what might have happened in a “flawless” Florida election. The article highlights a study done for the paper by Stephen Doig, a journalist-turned-academic who specializes in computer-assisted research. Based on Doig’s precinct-by-precinct analysis of 185,000 uncounted Florida votes, Al Gore would have defeated George W. Bush in Florida by 23,468 votes if every voter had succeeded in voting the way he or she intended to vote. Doig’s evidence is compelling and goes a long way toward justifying Gore’s refusal, thus far, to concede the election. Gore not only won the popular vote nationally; more people left Florida voting booths thinking they had voted for him than did for Bush. 

But Doig tries to project a notional result of the Florida election by speculating about the likely intent behind both “undervotes” (where tabulating machines picked up no choice for president) and the larger number of “overvotes” (which were rejected by the machine because a voter punched two or more holes). The assumption that both undervotes and overvotes would be likely to mirror the precinct-by-precinct breakdown for the candidates is certainly plausible. But it’s fanciful to include overvotes, which are spoiled and can’t be counted under election laws anywhere in the country. Thus the Herald article may have answered the question of which candidate should have won the presidency in an ideal world of perfect elections. But it fails to home in on the more immediately relevant question of which candidate might win the election in the increasingly unlikely event of all legally valid votes being counted. 

To try to answer this question, you have to do pretty much the opposite of what the Herald study does. You have to start by tossing overboard the overvotes, which represent approximately two-thirds of the 185,000 uncounted ballots. Then you must focus on the undervotes, which may or may not contain a legally valid vote for president.

The Bush legal team spent several days in Judge N. Sanders Sauls’ courtroom arguing that undervotes typically represent a conscious decision by a voter to choose no candidate for president. There’s no basis for this assumption. In fact, there exists the basis for a pretty good guess about how many of the Florida undervotes represent an intentional non-vote and how many of them represent a vote simply not counted. In the 37 Florida counties that used the superior optical-scan system, only 3 out of every 1,000 ballots contained no vote for president. In the 15 counties that used the Votomatic punch-card voting system, the rate was 15 ballots out of 1,000. In the 13 counties that used the somewhat better Datavote punch-card system, the average was nine votes out of 1,000. In the absence of any compelling argument about why punch-card voters should be less likely to cast ballots for president than optical-scan voters, it seems fair to assume that the difference in those numbers represents an attempt to vote for president. So, assume that for every 15 Votomatic voters whose ballots failed to yield a vote for president, only three of them, at most, intended to not vote. Blink twice if you’re still with me. 

It also seems plausible to assume that if it were possible to count all the undervoted ballots that are not intentional nonvotes, these votes would break down according to the percentage of machine-counted votes in each county. Evidence: In Broward County, the one large county that carried out an aggressive hand recount, trying to read as many dimpled votes as possible, this was the case. The result from 1,721 votes picked up in the hand recount nearly mirrored the results of the nearly 600,000 votes tabulated by machine. Gore got 66 percent of the machine-counted votes while Bush got 30 percent. In the hand recount, Gore got his same 66 percent while Bush actually did slightly better, winning 33 percent. In this case, at least, the undervotes closely tracked the results of counted votes. In Palm Beach, which used a stricter standard and didn’t count dimpled chad, the machine-counted vote went 58 percent Gore to 33 percent Bush. The hand recount results were slightly less favorable to Gore, who picked up 52 percent of the undervotes to Bush’s 34 percent. We’d get more reliable numbers from a precinct-by-precinct analysis, but unfortunately those data don’t exist for most of the counties in question.

Time for some arithmetic. For each punch-card county, subtract the baseline of .3 percent (the average number recorded under the superior optical-scan system) from the undervote. Then award the remainder of the undervotes proportionally according to the machine-counted vote for the two candidates. As an example, I’ll use Sumter County, a Votomatic county that had 23,023 total votes cast and reported a 2.58 percent undervote rate in the presidential race. Multiply the 23,028 by 2.28 percent–the total undervote minus the share of the undervote attributable to intentional nonvoting for president. That yields at total of 525 Sumter County undervotes that could be legally counted, at least in theory. Break those down according to the vote shares won in Sumter County by the two candidates–41.8 percent for Gore and 52.7 percent for Bush. That means an additional 220 votes for Gore, an additional 277 votes for Bush, and a net gain of 57 for Bush.

Now let’s perform the same math on the 18 of the 28 punch-card counties that reported separate undervote percentages (as distinct from a combined tally for undervotes and overvotes). By my calculation, Gore would gain 2,520 votes in these 18 counties. The other 10 punch-card counties that I’m not including for lack of an undervote statistic would not be likely to change this number much. The 10 are all Datavote counties that are either very small (under 10,000 votes cast in total) or that had a very small percentage of votes that weren’t counted by the tabulating machines in the first place. 

After the second machine count, but before including the results of any hand recounts, Bush was ahead in Florida by 327 votes. Absentee ballots increased his margin by 630. So, based on this analysis, if all the undervotes that could theoretically be counted were counted, Gore would win Florida by 1,563. This is the best answer I can come up with to the question, “Who would win Florida in the case of an ideal statewide recount?”

The problem with that question is that there is no such thing as an ideal recount, at least with a voting system as flawed as Florida’s. Those 2,500 additional Gore votes are potentially legal and valid votes, since a dimpled or hanging chad ballot can be counted according to Florida’s voter-intent standard. But they exist fully only in the ether–there is no earthly means of capturing them all. Most of these votes are, in practical terms, not recoverable because they don’t contain readable impressions on their chad.

So, how many of these 2,500 votes might be recoverable in a real-world recount? I’d base my guess on Broward County, which employed a permissive chad-reading standard that included dimples as well as danglers, hangers-on, and swingers. Broward recovered approximately 1,721 of the 3,175 undervotes that weren’t non-votes, or 54 percent. Extrapolating from that number, you can project that Gore would gain 54 percent of 2,520, or 1,366 votes in a manual recount of 18 of 28 punch-card counties. Subtract that number from Bush’s 957-vote lead, and you have one answer. If all of Florida’s punch-card counties were to perform a hand recount using the chad rules employed by Broward County, Al Gore would win the state by 409 votes. But a different standard would yield a different result. Ignoring dimpled chad, Palm Beach County recovered only 974 of 7,823 potentially readable undervotes, or 12.5 percent. If the Palm Beach standard were used statewide, Gore would gain only 315 votes in a statewide recount, leaving him 642 votes short of victory.

In fact, neither of these outcomes–the one based on a statewide Broward County standard or the one based on a statewide Palm Beach standard–remains possible. In today’s decision, the Florida Supreme Court again declined to decree a single ballot-reading rule, leaving Broward free to count dimpled chad, Palm Beach free to ignore them, and the other counties free to apply their own judgments about voter intent. Broward County has already added 567 votes for Gore using its own chosen rules. And Palm Beach County has already given Gore an additional 167 votes (or 215 in the Florida Supreme Court’s pre-corrected figure) instead of more than 1,000 it might have added to his tally had the Florida Supreme Court required that it go back and count its dimpled chad.

This was the silver lining for Bush in the Court’s decision. My model suggests that without Palm Beach County’s dimpled chad ballots, Gore can’t expect to come out ahead even if the remaining punch-card counties employ a permissive standard in their recounts. The reason is that Bush won the remaining counties in Florida with punch-card voting systems. That means that counting additional votes in punch-card counties other than Broward and Palm Beach is likely to produce a net gain in votes for Bush rather than for Gore. Counting more of the undervote in those counties should produce a bigger net gain for Bush. My figures show Bush winning Florida by about 200 votes with a Palm Beach standard (except in Broward County) and by 400 votes if dimples are counted (except in Palm Beach County).

If I’m right, this may mean a curious reversal in position once the hand recounts begin again. Outside of Miami-Dade County, the more permissive Broward standard that Bush has objected to could reap bigger gains for him in the recount than the stricter Palm Beach standard that his supporters have thus far preferred. Especially in strongly Republican counties like Collier, Lee and Sarasota, it’s Bush who stands to gain if every vote counts.  

Of course, these numbers are so close that no model can give you an accurate forecast of the real result. And the good news is that by next week, we may no longer have to guess about it.