A New York Times investigation into overseas ballots that helped George W. Bush win the presidency found that Florida election officials, facing intense GOP pressure to accept military votes, counted hundreds of overseas absentee ballots that failed to comply with state election laws.
The Times published the results of its investigation in today's editions. The newspaper's six-month examination of the 2,490 overseas ballots accepted after Election Day found 680 questionable votes.
But while that number is greater than Bush's 537-vote victory in Florida, the paper concluded that Bush still would likely have defeated Al Gore even if those flawed ballots had been discarded.
Gary King, a Harvard expert on voting patterns and statistical models, concluded that Bush's winning margin would most likely have been reduced to 245 votes if the overseas votes had been thrown out. There was only a slight chance that discarding the questionable ballots would have made Gore the winner.
It was impossible to simply count the questionable votes because the ballots themselves are separated from the envelopes containing voter information.
The paper found no evidence of fraud by either party, though it did interview voters who admitted they had cast illegal ballots after Election Day. It found no support for suspicions that the Bush campaign had organized an effort to solicit late votes.
After the uncertain results of Nov. 7, both Gore and Bush began high-pressure postelection campaigns to eke out a victory. The importance of overseas ballots and particularly military votes quickly became apparent.
The paper documented a successful effort by Republicans to count the maximum number of overseas ballots in counties won by Bush, particularly those with a high concentration of military voters, while seeking to disqualify overseas ballots in counties won by Gore.
Counties carried by Gore accepted two in 10 ballots that had no evidence they were mailed on or before Election Day. Counties carried by Bush accepted six in 10 of such ballots. Bush counties were four times as likely as Gore counties to count ballots lacking witness signatures and addresses.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told the Times: "This election was decided by the voters of Florida a long time ago. And the nation, the president and all but the most partisan Americans have moved on."
"The story reinforces the perception that members of the Bush team believe the rules don't apply to them," Democratic Party spokeswoman Jennifer Palmieri told the Associated Press on Saturday.
Of the 680 flawed ballots, the paper found 344 ballots with no evidence they were cast on or before Election Day; 183 ballots with United States postmarks rather than overseas postmarks; 96 ballots lacking the required signature or address of a witness; 169 ballots from voters who were not registered, who failed to sign the envelope or who had not requested a ballot as required by federal law; five ballots received after the Nov. 17 deadline; and 19 voters who cast two ballots, both of which counted.
The total number of flaws exceeds the number of questionable overseas ballots because many of the envelopes had multiple defects.
Adding it up
Although Bush had a fluctuating lead throughout the 36 days of recounts and court fights after Nov. 7, the Florida Department of State's Web site shows that if none of the overseas absentee ballots was counted after Election Day, Gore would have won Florida by 202 votes, and retained Democratic control of the White House.
Benjamin L. Ginsberg, national counsel to the Bush campaign, recalled those days as being "as hardball a game as any of us had ever been involved in."
Judge Anne Kaylor, chairwoman of the Polk County canvassing board, said the combination of Republican pressure and court rulings caused her board to count some ballots that would probably have been considered illegal in past years.
"I think the rules were bent," said Kaylor, a Democrat. "Technically, they were not supposed to be accepted. Any canvassing board that says they weren't under pressure is being less than candid."
Ginsberg said, "We didn't ask anybody to do anything that wasn't in the law as it existed on Election Day."