In mid-September, a consortium of news organizations announced that it was postponing its analysis of the ballots that were cast but not counted in Florida during the mess that was the 2000 presidential election. The decision didn't sit well with those who were eagerly awaiting proof that George W. Bush had stolen the election. Word quickly traveled the Internet that Al Gore had won and won big, and that the media had spiked the story to avoid undermining the legitimacy of a suddenly popular president who was leading the nation to war.
Propagating these ideas--perhaps with more success than anyone--was a late-blooming activist from the South Loop named Carolyn Kay. The 57-year-old Kay, who grew up in Louisiana and all but slept through the civil rights movement, seems like an unlikely lefty. She worked at USO recreation centers in Vietnam during the war and got an MBA in the late 70s. She didn't care about politics until the "Gingrich revolution" of the mid-90s. She got "furious" during President Clinton's impeachment trial and "frightened" by the 2000 presidential campaign, when, she says, "it became apparent to me that the mainstream media had joined the Bush camp." The media reported "every outrageous lie the Bush team came up with about Gore, and when they were proven to be false no one retracted them," she says, mentioning articles that claimed Gore said he'd invented the Internet.
Kay turned to the Web and the alternative and foreign press for campaign coverage she could trust, and she began distributing her findings to family and friends in an E-mail newsletter. A month before the election, with opinion polls predicting a tight race, she realized she needed to reach a wider audience. A freelance computer consultant, Kay drew on her technical skills to create Make Them Accountable, a Web site intent on holding "politicians accountable for their actions" and "the news media accountable for their conservative bias." She posts--and comments on--excerpts of previously published articles, publishes her own original pieces as well as original pieces by like-minded contributors, and promotes specific political actions, such as boycotts and letter-writing campaigns. Visitors to www.makethemaccountable.com can also listen to daily commentaries in which Kay expounds on "whatever moves me" or "makes me angry."
One thing that made Kay angry shortly after she launched her Web site was the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to halt the limited manual recount that was under way in a few select counties in Florida. Several days later, on December 12, the Supreme Court found the recount unconstitutional, in part because the state had no uniform standards for determining what constituted a legal vote. The ruling left Bush with a compromised victory--and Kay with a renewed sense of outrage. The way she saw it, democracy had been dealt a crippling blow: in America, every vote was supposed to count.
A few weeks later, still-indignant Gore supporters found some small consolation in the idea that even if every vote didn't count every vote would at least get counted. In early January, eight media organizations--including the New York Times, the Tribune Company, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post--hired the National Opinion Research Center to examine the ballots that had been disqualified in all 67 counties in Florida. NORC, a nonpartisan company associated with the University of Chicago, specializes in data collection and analysis.
In late January, NORC staff members scattered across the state and interviewed prospective ballot examiners, or "coders." Candidates had to take a vision test and undergo questioning meant to screen out people who might be "highly partisan," says Kirk Wolter, senior vice president at NORC. Most of the 153 coders who were hired learned about the job through connections to the survey research industry; a small number came through temp agencies.
On February 5, sitting three to a table and under the supervision of NORC team leaders, the coders began examining the 175,010 ballots rejected by counting machines. The ballots were either overvotes, which contained more than one marking for president, or undervotes, which contained either no markings or markings that weren't read by the machines. According to Wolter, county workers held the ballots up one at a time for the coders, who were not permitted to touch the ballots themselves but could instruct the county workers on how to hold them. The coders could even twist the county workers' hands to get a better view. "Each of our people had a little light table," says Wolter, "and they were able to hold the ballot over the light table and get a really good look at the ballot." Though the coders sat together, he says, they formed their judgments independently and without discussion, recording what they saw in numbers that corresponded to precise descriptions. Chads hanging from the upper-left-hand corner, for example, received a different numerical code than chads hanging from the upper-right-hand corner.
NORC staff sent the coders' forms to the company office in Chicago every night by Express Mail. The coders finished examining the ballots in late May or early June, according to Wolter, and then NORC began the process of building and formatting its data files (which are now available to the public at norc.org). The members of the media consortium planned to publish separate but coordinated analyses of the data in mid-September, but the project got pushed onto the back burner by the terrorist attacks.
Kay read about the postponement with skepticism. She believed that Gore must have won and that the media simply couldn't figure out how to "manipulate" the numbers to favor Bush. In her mind, the terrorist attacks hardly warranted a total shifting of priorities. "What bigger story could there be in this century than the man elected in the biggest and most powerful country in the world was not the man inaugurated?" Kay says. Though she admits that terrorism in the United States is a "pretty heavy-duty" story, she says, "It's an old story, really: weak people fighting against powerful people and hurting them in any way they can."
At the beginning of October, one of her contributors submitted an article asserting that the NORC study showed Gore had "decisively" won Florida. It quoted an anonymous former media executive who had "previously established credibility as a well-informed and accurate conduit of information." Kay knows next to nothing about the writer, David Podvin, not even such basic things as where he lives and what he does for a living. But she respects and trusts him nonetheless. Podvin had previously published a piece on BuzzFlash.com, another Chicago-based Web site, debunking the widely reported story that Clinton staffers had vandalized the White House in their waning days on the job. The General Accounting Office later reported to Congress that there were no records of vandalism, and the General Services Administration described the condition of the property as "consistent with what we would expect to encounter when tenants vacate office space after an extended occupancy." When Podvin told Kay one of his main sources on the recount story was the same media executive he'd talked to for the vandalism story, she was thrilled. "I said, 'Holy shit!' I knew it was a biggie." (Attempts to reach Podvin were unsuccessful. Kay says he didn't want to be interviewed for this article.)
Kay immediately posted the article and then collaborated with Podvin on a five-part series alleging that the media had covered up "ironclad proof that the wrong man is in the White House." At the bottom of each piece, Kay ran a tag line urging readers to "pass this article on to EVERYONE YOU KNOW!" Apparently some of them did. After posting the five-part series, she says, the average number of visits per week jumped from 6,000 to 26,000. The flood of activity on her Web site required her to devote more time to it. Soon she was spending 16 to 18 hours a day on the site, ignoring paid work and living off her savings, which eventually became a source of conflict between her and her partner of 24 years, who began to wonder when or if her full-time political activism would bring in any income. Kay says they share political beliefs, but he doesn't have much of a hand in Make Them Accountable. He doesn't even want to be named on it, she says, so when she quotes him, she refers to him as "The Voice from the Blue."
It's not inconceivable that a free press would withhold or spin information to protect a president or to toe a party line. Consider a recent memo from the copy chief of the News Herald in Panama City, Florida, which explicitly instructs the staff to "play down the civilian casualties" in Afghanistan, either by rewriting wire stories that lead with civilian deaths or by keeping photos of so-called collateral damage off the front page. But in the case of the recount story, the media couldn't possibly have been sitting on a Gore victory, according to NORC's Wolter. He says he would have known. The raw data needed to tabulate the votes was stored safely in his computer, on the 48th floor of a building at State and Monroe, in a file accessible only to him and a handful of others he worked with at NORC. And that's where it stayed, he says, until 8 AM on Monday, November 5, when he provided his clients with a password that enabled them to retrieve the data from a secure Web site and a CD he had sent by FedEx. Until then, says Wolter, who's also a professor of statistics at the University of Chicago, no one could have produced a vote tally--not even him.
Wary of engaging in any activity that could damage NORC's reputation as nonpartisan, Wolter had specifically designed the project to avoid having to draw any conclusions that might "smack of second-guessing the election." He says that when he approached the consortium at the beginning of the year, "I made it known almost right away that my interest was not in studying vote totals." Instead, he says, his interest was in collecting data that NORC could use to assess the reliability of Florida's optical scan and punch-card voting systems. In other words, he wanted to provide information that would help legislators improve elections in the future.
Under the contract--which cost the media consortium about a million dollars--NORC agreed only to produce, in numerical codes, a "comprehensive description" of the markings on each ballot. The media were on their own when it came to developing software that could tabulate the votes and interpreting the data to answer questions about how the election would have played out under different recount scenarios.
NORC's assertion that no one could have known who won the election during the ballot examination process is "absurd," Kay says--especially in the face of the interviews she and Podvin conducted with observers, coders, supervisors, and people in the "upper echelons" of the mainstream media. Kay claims that even Republican observers detected a pro-Gore trend, and that's why, according to an article she penned with Podvin, they "yelled about the quality of the coders, screamed about the treachery of the process, and threw temper tantrums about the unfairness of it all." The article asserted that one GOP activist even wrongly accused a coder of being drunk on the job.
The Republicans, who, like the media sponsors, paid an undisclosed fee to the Florida counties to observe the process, did at times voice objections and try to dispute NORC's methodology, according to Ford Fessenden, an investigative reporter for the New York Times who specializes in finding and interpreting patterns in databases. "We sort of ignored them," he says, because NORC's methodology was "scientifically defensible." Fessenden, though, says the allegation that the media withheld the data to protect Bush is "ridiculous," and NORC maintains that no one observed enough of the examination process, which occurred simultaneously in every county, to be able to spot a trend.
Some readers of Make Them Accountable are troubled that most of Podvin and Kay's sources have been anonymous. But Kay answers her critics by saying that many of the sources could not publicly come forward without subjecting themselves to lawsuits, because they signed confidentiality agreements with NORC. According to Kay, the sources broke their agreements only because they feared the results of the recount would never get published. She says that at one point NORC stopped returning her phone calls. NORC spokesperson Julie Antelman responds that Make Them Accountable had distorted her comments to advance a political agenda.
Kay and Podvin own up to being biased and proudly pat themselves on the back for their lack of credentials, writing, "We do not purport to be 'professional' journalists, and that is a good thing, not a bad thing. The 'professional' journalists just put George Bush in the White House, and he has taken us from peace and prosperity to war and recession."
When the recount story got shelved, Kay began urging readers to send E-mails and letters to members of the media consortium and NORC in protest. She likes to think their efforts had something to do with the consortium's decision to set another publication date. In early November, when Kay learned that NORC had released the data, she joined forces with the Web master of another activist Web site to blitz the consortium members with a form E-mail requesting that they present the results without distortion--if Gore won, they should say so clearly. The text of the suggested E-mail, which Kay helped write, also asked consortium members to "use the results of the study to pressure our legislators and the Bush administration to reform the electoral process, so that such a debacle can never happen again."
A day before the results were made public, the St. Petersburg Times reported that it had received more than 3,000 messages from a coordinated campaign. Kay sent the excerpt out to people on her mailing list, writing underneath it in bold bracketed letters, "Thats US, folks!...We can be really, really proud!"
She was relieved the recount stories were finally going to be published, but she hardly expected the media to come out announcing a definitive Gore win. She had recently landed an interview with Jeffrey Toobin, a writer for the New Yorker and the author of a book about the election, Too Close to Call. In the interview, which can be heard on Kay's Web site, he said that because the Republicans had pushed for such "comically meticulous analysis" of the ballots the results of the media recount would almost certainly be "ambiguous" and would reinforce people's preexisting notions about who was the rightful winner.
Kay agreed with him. Last Sunday, her excitement about the imminent release of the recount results was tempered by the feeling that the media were "just going to gum it up" and "obfuscate the issue." She didn't even bother to keep herself awake until 10 PM, when articles would start appearing on the consortium members' Web sites.
She woke up at 5 AM Monday to news that didn't surprise her. Most of the headlines trumpeted a Bush victory, emphasizing that even if the Supreme Court hadn't stopped the partial recount Bush would have won. But lower down, the articles also gave Kay a golden nugget, clearly saying that more voters had intended to vote for Gore and that he probably would have won if there had been a statewide recount. She sent people on her mailing list excerpts of the articles, updated her Web site, and then began her daily commentary, writing, "As we knew, Al Gore won Florida in last year's presidential election."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell; National Opinion Research Center, University of Chicago.