SYNOPSIS: Please note that Paul Krugman has written a correction to several parts of this article
The 2000 election is still an open sore on the body politic. That was clear from the outraged reaction to my mention last week of what would have happened with a full statewide manual recount of Florida.
This reaction seems to confuse three questions. One is what would have happened if the U.S. Supreme Court hadn't intervened; the answer is that unless the judge overseeing the recount had revised his order (which is a possibility), George W. Bush would still have been declared the winner.
The second is what would have happened if there had been a full, statewide manual recount - as there should have been. The probable answer is that Al Gore would have won, by a tiny margin.
The third is what would have happened if the intentions of the voters hadn't been frustrated by butterfly ballots, felon purges and more; the answer is that Mr. Gore would have won by a much larger margin.
About the evidence regarding a manual recount: in April 2001 a media consortium led by The Miami Herald assessed how various recounts of "undervotes," which did not register at all, would have affected the outcome. Two out of three hypothetical statewide counts would have given the election to Mr. Gore. The third involved a standard that would have discarded some ballots on which the intended vote was clear. Since Florida law seemed to require counting such ballots, this standard almost certainly wouldn't have been used in a statewide recount.
The Herald group later did an analysis of "overvotes," in which more than one choice was recorded, but this wasn't a true recount, because some of it was based on computer records rather than the ballots themselves.
In November 2001 a larger consortium, which included The New York Times, produced more definitive results that allowed assessment of nine hypothetical recounts. (You can see the results at www.norc.uchicago.edu/fl - under articles.) The three recounts that had been most widely discussed during the battle of Florida, including the partial recount requested by the Gore campaign and two interpretations of the Florida Supreme Court order, would have given the vote to Mr. Bush.
But the six hypothetical manual recounts that would have covered the whole state - including both loose and strict standards - would have given the election to Mr. Gore. And other evidence makes it clear that many intended votes for Mr. Gore were frustrated.
So why do so many people believe the Bush win was rock solid?
One answer is that many editorials and op-ed articles have claimed that no possible recount would have changed the outcome. Let's be charitable and assume that those who write such things are victims of the echo chamber, and believe that what everyone they talk to says must be true.
The other answer is that many though not all reports of the results of the ballot reviews conveyed a false impression about what those reviews said. A few reports got the facts wrong, but for the most part they simply stressed the likelihood - in some cases presented as a certainty - that Mr. Bush would have won even if the U.S. Supreme Court hadn't intervened. But even if a proper recount wasn't in the cards given the political realities, that says nothing about what such a recount would have found.
The tone of these reports may have been influenced by the timing: the second consortium's report came out just two months after 9/11. The country wanted very badly to believe in its leadership. Nobody wanted to write stories suggesting that the wrong man was sitting in the White House.
More broadly, the story of the 2000 election remains deeply disturbing - not just the fact that a man the voters tried to reject ended up as president, but the ugliness of the fight itself. There was an understandable urge to put the story behind us.
But we aren't doing the country a favor when we present recent history in a way that makes our system look better than it is. Sometimes the public needs to hear unpleasant truths, even if those truths make them feel worse about their country.
Not to be coy: election 2000 may be receding into the past, but the Iraq war isn't. As the truth about the origins of that war comes out, there may be a temptation, once again, to prettify the story. The American people deserve better.
Originally published in The New York Times, 8.22.05