- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 11, 2001

Widely quoted assertions that black voters cast 15 percent of Florida's ballots in the 2000 presidential election are wrong far beyond any acceptable margin of error, The Washington Times has learned.

Official computerized reports obtained by The Times, identifying each voter by name and race, contradict claims that turnout by blacks has increased by more than 50 percent since 1996.

Contrary to all reports, black voters on Nov. 7 constituted 10 percent of Florida's turnout — 610,616 by actual count, as opposed to estimates that routinely top 900,000.

Simply achieving the widely reported 15 percent share of the turnout of 6,086,109 would require that an unheard of 97.7 percent of all black registered voters had gone to the polls.

"People just throw out statistics. Where do they get this stuff? It's basically a guess," Clayton Roberts, who heads the Florida Division of Elections, told The Times before the full file was assembled.

The actual 10 percent black share of the votes cast on Nov. 7 rose only slightly from 1996's official record, when blacks cast 9.5 percent of the 5.4 million votes.

Among other serious consequences, the mistaken 15 percent estimate helped lead to the inaccurate televised declarations that Al Gore had won the state, narrowing the race by discouraging some George W. Bush supporters from voting in parts of Florida where polls still were open. The narrowness of Mr. Bush's lead nourished hopes that the Florida result could be reversed by recounts in precincts dominated by minorities.

The precise count of who voted is derived from Florida's "active voter file," a public record compiled by Mr. Roberts' office. It contains the names, addresses and political affiliations of active voters with their voting records for each election since 1992.

States such as Florida that are subject to the federal Voting Rights Act also must include racial data in voter files.

The mistaken 15 percent estimates originated on Election Day with Voter News Service (VNS), a media cooperative. It quickly was adopted as doctrine by reporters and by voting analyst David Bositis at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies even though VNS national numbers never showed a broad surge in black turnout.

"Our Florida estimate was at 15 percent of the turnout. In 1996, it was 10 percent. It wouldn't surprise me if they were both actually at 12.5 percent," VNS statistician Murray Edelman said in an interview before The Times obtained precise data.

"Once the numbers get out, they have a life all their own. People who have an agenda can use them in ways that serve them or to make a point," said Mr. Edelman, who is editorial director for VNS.

VNS conducted exit polls in every state. It based Florida estimates on 1,785 interviews, including 352 with black voters. Mr. Edelman said the other key VNS finding, that only 7 percent of Florida blacks voted for Mr. Bush, was an estimate and that his personal view is that the figure may range from 3 percent to 10 percent.

"Seven percent is our best estimate of preference," Mr. Edelman said.

When The Times reviewed final outcomes from five Miami area precincts where 93 percent of the 6,008 registered voters were black, Mr. Gore consistently drew 86 percent to 88 percent of the vote.

Mr. Edelman said VNS did not use the available racial data to choose a racially representative sample of precincts for interviews and said the data also may have been tainted by "clustering" interviews at big-city precincts where many blacks live.

"That's a good idea," he replied when asked why he didn't use racial data in states required to compile it.

"In Florida, the black share of the vote grew from 10 to 15 percent of the total, a 50 percent increase," Mr. Bositis wrote in a scholarly paper published and distributed by his organization, a widely quoted source for many political writers and analysts who perpetuated that mistake in virtually every news report and commentary, including two commentaries in this newspaper since July 1.

Mr. Bositis said he lifted numbers selectively from the New York Times, a VNS subscriber that published exit interview data in its election review issue Nov. 12. He reacted testily when asked why he would base sweeping conclusions on partial figures without all the data, which he said his organization couldn't afford to buy.

"It's my choice. I can do whatever I want. I'm the foremost authority on black voting in the country. I don't work for the Census Bureau," Mr. Bositis said.

John Allen Poulos, a Temple University mathematics professor who specializes in probability and statistics, criticized such methods, saying that using exit polls to detect the minute gap between Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush in Florida was like "trying to measure the difference between two bacteria with a yardstick."

"Wariness is well-placed. Often numbers gain a certain currency simply by being quoted as this number has," Mr. Poulos said.

Many election commentaries used as their cornerstone what the Philadelphia Inquirer called the "surge in the African American vote in November," including Florida's inaccurate 15 percent turnout figure.

Without such a surge, Inquirer reporter Eugene Kiely wrote, "That messy recount in Florida never would have happened."

The Washington Post specifically reported that "893,000 black voters cast ballots in Florida," unknowingly exaggerating the Nov. 7 turnout by 282,384 and ignoring the fact that that number would represent 96 percent of the state's 934,261 registered black voters.

St. Petersburg Times political reporter Lucy Morgan went further, saying black voters comprised nearly 16 percent of the state electorate, which would substantially exceed Florida's registered black voter count.

Brad Coker of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, a national firm with Florida roots, has long been a lone voice disputing the 15 percent estimate and guessing at 10 percent in an unpublished February interview with this newspaper.

"I started saying it on Election Night, but nobody paid any attention to me," Mr. Coker said yesterday. "It wasn't too hard to do the math and say they jumped the gun on this one."

Political history professor Allen Lichtman, of American University, used "ecological regression" to estimate black turnout at 11 percent in his report to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, but that analysis was eclipsed by disputes over other findings in the report.

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