Who won the ‘Who Won?’ story?

Breaking down five versions of the news media’s uncounted-ballot study

Your mission is to write a story of between 2,000 and 3,000 words about a complex report detailing the screwiest election in American history. You’ll need to address the findings, a variety of hypothetical scenarios, the backdrop, the reaction and the perspective–and you’ll be tempted to cram it all in the first half-dozen grafs.

What you’ll find out, as you try, is that you keep overloading the story, and are forced to strip some crucial information out of the top and scatter it through the rest of the story. As much as you fancy yourself an uncompromising reporter, you’ll make one compromise after another in structuring this beast. So will your competitors. And all of you-even if you walked away from the keyboard the night before, satisfied you’d done your best-will be slapping your heads when you read your rivals’ work the next morning. For they’ll have made at least one better choice.

This was the challenge some of our best political writers faced last week when newspapers around the country printed the result of a long-awaited media study of the uncounted Florida presidential ballots. Here are the first several hundred words of five different versions, published by five media organizations that were among those who studied the uncounted ballots: the Tribune Co. (represented here by the Los Angeles Times), the Associated Press, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and the Washington Post.

These are presented in no particular order, but they’re fun to study because they show you how different writers and editors–with access to the same data–made different decisions about points of emphasis. As you study them, keep focused on how each version was based on a particular “greater good,” and how that sense of mission governed each story’s compromises-the decision that put certain details further and further down, even though many of those details seemed awfully important.

 Who won the ‘Who Won?’ story?

Who won the ‘Who Won?’ story?

Let’s start with the L.A. Times’ version, which used the first two grafs to compare scenarios that had Bush and Gore winning:

WASHINGTON — If the U.S. Supreme Court had allowed Florida’s courts to finish their abortive recount of last year’s deadlocked presidential election, President Bush probably still would have won by several hundred votes, a comprehensive study of the uncounted ballots has found.

But if the recount had been held under new vote-counting rules that Florida and other states now are adopting–rules aimed at recording the intentions of as many voters as possible–Democratic candidate Al Gore probably would have won, although by an even thinner margin, the study found.

The second graf gave us the most enticing, albeit moot, points of the study: In one distant scenario, Gore might have won. The third graf expands on that by explaining that more folks attempted to vote for Gore:

The study provides evidence that more Florida voters attempted to vote for Gore than for Bush–but so many Gore voters marked their ballots improperly that Bush received more valid votes. As a result, under rules devised by the Florida Supreme Court and accepted by the Gore campaign at the time, Bush probably would have won a recount, the study found. Since the study was launched, the nation’s debate over the Florida recount has cooled and Bush, whose legitimacy as president already was accepted by a large majority in January, has won massive public approval for his leadership of the war against terrorism.

The study, a painstaking inspection of 175,010 Florida ballots that were not included in the state’s certified tally, found as many as 23,799 additional, potentially valid votes for Gore or Bush.

The fifth graf grapples with the toughest part of the story-the study examined many scenarios, and the margin was always tiny:

The significance of these ballots depends on what standards are used to weigh their validity. Under some recount rules, Bush wins. Under others, Gore wins.

But in almost every case, the outcome still is a virtual dead heat, with the two candidates separated by no more than a few hundred votes out of nearly 6 million cast in the state.

Now the story invests five grafs in the history of the 2000 election:

A little more than a year ago, after one of the most tumultuous election nights in the nation’s history, Americans awoke to discover that the presidential race was–improbably–deadlocked.

Florida, with 25 electoral votes, was too close to call. And without Florida, neither Bush nor Gore had a majority of electoral votes.

The official results, which the state certified over Democratic protests, were: Bush 2,912,790, Gore 2,912,253. The margin of 537 votes, less than 0.01% of the total votes cast, triggered an automatic recount.

For 36 days, politicians and lawyers argued over whether and how to recount the state’s votes. The Florida Supreme Court ordered a recount to begin; the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the recount to stop. On Dec. 13, Gore conceded. On Jan. 20, Bush took office as president.

But thousands of potentially valid votes remained uncounted. And, as a result, the Florida election’s outcome remained a matter of debate.

Then the story transitions back to the findings, using bullets:

In January, eight major news organizations commissioned a definitive examination of the uncounted ballots in an effort to answer some of the outstanding questions and see if lessons could be learned for future elections.

The review found that:

* Precincts with large numbers of black voters were measurably more likely to produce spoiled ballots than precincts with few black voters. The data cannot explain why. However, the study debunked the belief that older voters are error-prone. Across the state, precincts with younger voters had higher error rates.

* Bush probably would have won any recount of “undervotes,” ballots that were rejected because they registered no clear vote for any presidential candidate. By contrast, Gore would have won most recount scenarios that included “overvotes,” ballots that showed votes for more than one candidate. However, Gore’s lawyers never pressed for overvotes to be recounted.

* Ballot design was a key factor. Although the Florida fiasco initially focused on the “butterfly ballot” for punch cards in Palm Beach County, the voters’ error rate was even higher in some counties that used more modern optical scanning systems but had equally confusing ballots. Most of the errors occurred in 18 counties where ballots spread the presidential candidates across two pages or two columns.

* Hand recounts can be reliable, but only if the rules are clear. The researchers who examined the ballots agreed on the marks they saw more than 97% of the time. The disagreements came mostly when they were asked to judge whether a voter who failed to punch a clear hole in a ballot had left a “dimple,” an indentation on the card.

* Some Florida counties handled their ballots so carelessly after election night that county officials could not say with any certainty which ballots had been counted and which had not.

And now the obligatory reaction grafs begin:

White House spokeswoman Nicolle Devenish, speaking on behalf of Bush, said: “The American people moved on…”

The Associated Press’ lead was more complex than the L.A. Times, summing up the entire study in a long one-sentence graf:

A vote-by-vote review of untallied ballots in the 2000 Florida presidential election indicates George W. Bush would have narrowly prevailed in the partial recounts sought by Al Gore, but Gore might have reversed the outcome–by the barest of margins–had he pursued and gained a complete statewide recount.

It gives us a dollop of historical background almost immediately:

Bush won Florida, and the White House, by 537 votes out of more than 6 million cast. But questions about the uncounted votes lingered.

Almost a year later, a media-sponsored review of the more than 175,000 disputed ballots underscored that the presidency came down to an almost unimaginably small number of votes.

Good perspective in the fourth graf:

The new data, compiled by the Associated Press and seven other news organizations, also suggested that Gore followed a legal strategy after Election Day that would have led to his defeat even if it had not been rejected by the US Supreme Court. Gore sought a recount of a relatively small portion of the state’s disputed ballots; the review indicates his only chance lay in a course he advocated publicly but did not pursue in court–a full statewide recount of all of Florida’s untallied votes.

The reaction is far higher than the L.A. Times:

”We are a nation of laws, and the presidential election of 2000 is over,” Gore said yesterday in a prepared statement. ”Right now, our country faces a great challenge as we seek to successfully combat terrorism. I fully support President Bush’s efforts to achieve that goal.”

Said Bush’s press secretary, Ari Fleischer: ”The election was settled a year ago. President Bush won and the voters have long since moved on.”

The news organizations set out to examine as many as possible of the ballots set aside as either undervotes or overvotes. Undervotes involved about 62,000 ballots where voting machines were unable to detect a choice for any presidential candidate, and about 113,000 overvotes were read by machines as possibly containing more than one choice.

Then four grafs that, using clear, short sentences, explain the results from varying scenarios:

Since the legal wrangling focused on how votes were defined, the media-sponsored review did, too, calculating results under different standards.

Under any standard that tabulated all disputed votes statewide, Gore erased Bush’s advantage and emerged with a tiny lead that ranged from 42 to 171 votes.

Completing two partial recounts that Gore unsuccessfully pursued in court showed Bush maintaining a lead ranging between 225 and 493 votes.

Strikingly, all these outcomes were closer than even the 537 votes of Bush’s official victory margin. With numbers that tiny, specialists said it would be impossible to interpret the survey results as definitive.

The Wall Street Journal took a less traditional and less conditional approach: Its first graf started with a feature structure and ended by flatly saying Bush would have won–period:

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision to suspend the counting of disputed presidential ballots in Florida last year remains one of the most controversial actions in the court’s two centuries of history. But a year later, there’s this important update: An exhaustive review of the state’s ballots suggests that George W. Bush would have won anyway.

Background in the second graf:

The review of 175,010 Florida ballots by The Wall Street Journal and seven other media organizations was conducted with the help of the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. It attempted to examine all the ballots that didn’t register as votes when they were counted by machine.

The project, which took more than nine months and cost nearly $1 million, is likely to be as close as anyone will ever get to a comprehensive understanding of what really happened in Florida last fall.

Distillation of the key scenarios in the third graf:

The results suggest that if the U.S. Supreme Court had allowed the vote counting ordered by the Florida Supreme Court to continue, as many Democrats had advocated, Mr. Bush still would have won the election by 493 votes. That’s only a handful less than the official victory margin of 537 votes. The study also suggests that if then-Vice President Al Gore had won his original request for hand counts in just four heavily Democratic Florida counties, Mr. Bush still would have won, by 225 votes.

And then an aggressively interpretive fourth graf:

In other words, despite the ferocity with which critics have assailed the logic of its decision, the findings indicate that the Supreme Court didn’t steal the presidential election from Mr. Gore, as some Democrats believe. Instead, if anything can be said to have cost Mr. Gore the election, it was poor ballot design and a lack of voter education.

The Journal story, realizing how distant Gore’s chances were, decided to place the more-folks-wanted-to-vote-for-Gore graf lower:

None of the review’s findings are likely to settle the partisan dispute over the 2000 election. The study offers plenty of grist for those on both sides of the debate. It provides strong evidence, for instance, that a clear plurality of voters went to the polls on Nov. 7,2000, intending to vote for Mr. Gore. Thousands more Gore voters than Bush voters appear to have been foiled by a combination of their own mistakes and confusing ballots.

In another twist, the media consortium’s study shows that Mr. Gore might have edged out Mr. Bush if ballots were recounted the way the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Dec. 12 was necessary for constitutional fairness but impossible to complete given legal time constraints. That ruling called for “uniform rules to determine [voters'] intent” on all ballots statewide. Under several scenarios that applied such statewide standards, Mr. Gore’s victory margin was less than 200 votes.

Then a nice graf underscoring the thinness of all scenario margins:

In two scenarios analyzed by the consortium, his margin was nearly identical regardless of whether the statewide standard was as loose as Democrats had proposed — counting the infamous “dimpled chads” on punch-card ballots — or as strict as Republicans had wanted — counting only chads with at least two corners detached. All of the margins in the consortium’s analysis are smaller than Mr. Bush’s state-certified victory margin of 537 votes, or 0.009% — so small that imperfections in the study, or the vagaries of how county officials would have counted the votes, could have altered the results.

Then another two grafs that add to the nearly dismissive tone of the Journal’s article:

One indisputable conclusion is that Florida’s election system didn’t work well and needs to be reformed, a process the state has already begun. But the political impetus for nationwide ballot and election reform, which seemed so crucial to the country’s future last year, when the Florida results created a crisis for democracy, has been swept away by the tide of history.

For many Americans, the question of Mr. Bush’s legitimacy as president was settled when he took the oath of office Jan. 20. For nearly everyone else, the debate was decided Sept. 11. Polls taken since the terrorist attacks that day, including the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll over the weekend, continue to show that nearly nine out of 10 Americans approve of the job Mr. Bush is doing…

Several grafs lower, there’s a nice phrase that explains the purpose of the scenario (underlined):

To see what would have happened if Mr. Gore had gotten his way, the consortium accepted the four counties’ recounts but added results from Miami-Dade’s unfinished precincts by counting every ballot with at least one corner of a chad detached for a presidential candidate. The result: Mr. Bush, by 225 votes.

The Washington Post made, by my reading, the most effective compromises to give you the best distillation of the results in the top of the story (the first four grafs).

Here’s where the notion of the “greater good” came in: To achieve that result, the Post story used a trick that often clutters sentences beyond recognition–it crammed material into dashes in three of the first four grafs. Normally I hate that, but I accepted the insertion of perspective as doing more good than harm. (Notice that the second graf, which is too complicated for any more words, uses two sentences instead of dashed material.) You walk away from these first four grafs with an excellent understanding.

See what you think:

In all likelihood, George W. Bush still would have won Florida and the presidency last year if either of two limited recounts — one requested by Al Gore, the other ordered by the Florida Supreme Court — had been completed, according to a study commissioned by The Washington Post and other news organizations.

But if Gore had found a way to trigger a statewide recount of all disputed ballots, or if the courts had required it, the result likely would have been different. An examination of uncounted ballots throughout Florida found enough where voter intent was clear to give Gore the narrowest of margins.

The study showed that if the two limited recounts had not been short-circuited — the first by Florida county and state election officials and the second by the U.S. Supreme Court — Bush would have held his lead over Gore, with margins ranging from 225 to 493 votes, depending on the standard. But the study also found that whether dimples are counted or amore restrictive standard is used, a statewide tally favored Gore by 60 to 171 votes.

Gore’s narrow margin in the statewide count was the result of a windfall in overvotes. Those ballots — on which a voter may have marked a candidate’s name and also written it in — were rejected by machines as a double vote on Election Day and most also would not have been included in either of the limited recounts.

Now the background:

The study by The Post and other media groups, an unprecedented effort that involved examining 175,010 ballots in 67 counties, underscores what began to be apparent as soon as the polls closed in the nation’s third most populous state Nov. 7, 2000: that no one can say with certainty who actually won Florida. Under every scenario used in the study, the winning margin remains less than 500 votes out of almost 6 million cast.

For 36 days after the election, the results in Florida remained in doubt, and so did the winner of the presidency. Bush emerged victorious when the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5 to 4 ruling, agreed with his lawyers’ contention that the counting should end. Since then, many Gore partisans have accused the court of unfairly aborting a process that would have put their candidate ahead.

Now five grafs on the deeper meaning:

But an examination of the disputed ballots suggests that in hindsight the battalions of lawyers and election experts who descended on Florida pursued strategies that ended up working against the interests of their candidates.

The study indicates, for example, that Bush had less to fear from the recounts underway than he thought. Under any standard used to judge the ballots in the four counties where Gore lawyers had sought a recount — Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade and Volusia — Bush still ended up with more votes than Gore, according to the study. Bush also would have had more votes if the limited statewide recount ordered by the Florida Supreme Court and then stopped by the U.S. Supreme Court had been carried through.

Had Bush not been party to short-circuiting those recounts, he might have escaped criticism that his victory hinged on legal maneuvering rather than on counting the votes.

In Gore’s case, the decision to ask for recounts in four counties rather than seek a statewide recount ultimately had far greater impact. But in the chaos of the early days of the recount battle, when Gore needed additional votes as quickly as possible and recounts in the four heavily Democratic counties offered him that possibility, that was not so obvious.

Nor was there any guarantee that Gore could have succeeded in getting a statewide recount. Florida law provided no mechanism to ask for a statewide recount, only county-by-county recounts. And although he did at one point call on Bush to join him in asking for a statewide recount, it was with the condition that Bush renounce all further legal action. Bush dismissed the offer, calling it a public relations gesture by his opponent, and Gore never took any further steps toward that goal.

Transitioning to reaction:

White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, responding to the study, said, “The voters settled this election last fall, and the nation moved on…

The rest of the story had sections on discerning voter intent, the genesis of this study, the history of the Florida election and deeper findings of the study that could be better appreciated within that technical context.

The New York Times pushed the Gore-might-have-won scenario down to the fourth graf, allowing it to use the first three grafs to expand on the Bush-would-have-won-anyway theme:

A comprehensive review of the uncounted Florida ballots from last year’s presidential election reveals that George W. Bush would have won even if the United States Supreme Court had allowed the statewide manual recount of the votes that the Florida Supreme Court had ordered to go forward.

Contrary to what many partisans of former Vice President Al Gore have charged, the United States Supreme Court did not award an election to Mr. Bush that otherwise would have been won by Mr. Gore. A close examination of the ballots found that Mr. Bush would have retained a slender margin over Mr. Gore if the Florida court’s order to recount more than 43,000 ballots had not been reversed by the United States Supreme Court.

Even under the strategy that Mr. Gore pursued at the beginning of the Florida standoff – filing suit to force hand recounts in four predominantly Democratic counties – Mr. Bush would have kept his lead, according to the ballot review conducted for a consortium of news organizations.

But the consortium, looking at a broader group of rejected ballots than those covered in the court decisions, 175,010 in all, found that Mr. Gore might have won if the courts had ordered a full statewide recount of all the rejected ballots. This also assumes that county canvassing boards would have reached the same conclusions about the disputed ballots that the consortium’s independent observers did. The findings indicate that Mr. Gore might have eked out a victory if he had pursued in court a course like the one he publicly advocated when he called on the state to “count all the votes.”

The fifth and sixth grafs were devoted to the complaints of elderly voters and the consequences of ballot errors:

In addition, the review found statistical support for the complaints of many voters, particularly elderly Democrats in Palm Beach County, who said in interviews after the election that confusing ballot designs may have led them to spoil their ballots by voting for more than one candidate.

More than 113,000 voters cast ballots for two or more presidential candidates. Of those, 75,000 chose Mr. Gore and a minor candidate; 29,000 chose Mr. Bush and a minor candidate. Because there was no clear indication of what the voters intended, those numbers were not included in the consortium’s final tabulations.

Now three perspective grafs, ending with the key scenario that gave it to Bush by 493 votes:

Thus the most thorough examination of Florida’s uncounted ballots provides ammunition for both sides in what remains the most disputed and mystifying presidential election in modern times. It illuminates in detail the weaknesses of Florida’s system that prevented many from voting as they intended to. But it also provides support for the result that county election officials and the courts ultimately arrived at–a Bush victory by the tiniest of margins.

The study, conducted over the last 10 months by a consortium of eight news organizations assisted by professional statisticians, examined numerous hypothetical ways of recounting the Florida ballots. Under some methods, Mr. Gore would have emerged the winner; in others, Mr. Bush. But in each one, the margin of victory was smaller than the 537-vote lead that state election officials ultimately awarded Mr. Bush.

For example, if Florida’s 67 counties had carried out the hand recount of disputed ballots ordered by the Florida court on Dec. 8, applying the standards that election officials said they would have used, Mr. Bush would have emerged the victor by 493 votes. Florida officials had begun such a recount the next day, but the effort was halted that afternoon when the United States Supreme Court ruled in a 5-to-4 vote that a statewide recount using varying standards threatened “irreparable harm” to Mr. Bush.

But the consortium’s study shows that Mr. Bush would have won even if the justices had not stepped in (and had further legal challenges not again changed the trajectory of the battle), answering one of the abiding mysteries of the Florida vote.

Even so, the media ballot review, carried out under rigorous rules far removed from the chaos and partisan heat of the post-election dispute, is unlikely to end the argument over the outcome of the 2000 presidential election. The race was so close that…

What’s the lesson? Examine your choices not merely by the effect they have on a particular graf or section of the story, but on the story’s holistic mission. Find enough time to give your piece an extra read that compares the domino-like effects of your good choices with the “greater good” of your story theme.