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Published: Tuesday, 1/16/2001

Big step toward finality

The news media frequently make an easy target for criticism - some of it regrettably well-deserved. Conversely, the media deserve praise for the labor-intensive public service about to be undertaken in Florida. Two ongoing projects initiated jointly by news organizations are intent on setting the voting record straight, once and for all, in the Sunshine State.

The Miami Herald, joined by USA Today, is painstakingly examining undervotes county by county, to study ballots in which no vote for president was recorded. A larger coalition of media parties, including the New York Times, Cable News Network, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post, have hired a notable research firm to conduct an extensive review over 10 weeks of both undervotes and overvotes - where marks indicated votes for more than one candidate.

For a fee of $500,000, the National Opinion Research Center, a nonprofit, independent group affiliated with the University of Chicago, will eventually produce a data base detailing the 180,000 Florida ballots that were rejected by machine tabulations after the election. No journalist will handle the ballots in that in-depth analysis.

This unusual coalition of normally competing news organizations, as well as many others in the media - including The Blade - which fully support their efforts, see it not as a vote recount but as an attempt to produce a public record of each ballot cast in an incredibly close election. It will be up to the public to draw its own conclusions from the facts.

Predictably, the GOP and right-wing commentators deride the renewed attention to Florida ballots as a futile pursuit of debatable results. Besides, they say, the time-consuming and costly exercise will have little bearing on an election that is officially over. But history may see it differently.

It's true that even if the media's tedious audit of the disputed Florida ballots adds up to a different outcome of the presidential election as determined by the Electoral College, it won't reverse the process that placed George W. Bush in the White House.

But it is possible - some believe probable - that the media's work will enable scholars and historians to ultimately conclude that George W. Bush was not rightfully entitled to the presidency.

The utter voting disarray in Florida that worked to Mr. Bush's advantage this time should never again put an election in such doubt. Punch cards are a ridiculously inefficient means of casting votes and should be retired immediately in every state, including Ohio. Their replacements could be optical scanning systems or touch-screen computers - whatever option accomplishes the job error-free.

In the meantime, the shadow of illegitimacy over President-elect Bush will surely lengthen and deepen as his term unfolds. The fact that many in the country still believe he didn't win the presidency fair and square will undercut his attempts to wield power or demonstrate the authority to nominate right wing ideologues like John Ashcroft.

The difficult task the media have begun in Florida may not change a thing as the nation inaugurates its 43rd president. But a closer examination of the votes that were discarded - for whatever reason - is likely to haunt the new administration and undermine the heady arrogance of conservative Republicans when their victory is confirmed hollow.



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