WASHINGTON -- Neither President-elect Bush nor Al Gore nor anybody else will ever know with certainty who really got more votes in Florida. At 0.00009 percent of the vote, the margin by which it was certified for Bush, it was too close for absolute proof that the count was beyond doubt.
Recounting again would not have changed that. It would only have changed the impossibly close numbers, in favor of one man or the other but still too close for guarantees, especially when what counted or didn't count would have depended on human judgments under varied standards.
Bush might have won by more than 537 votes, or fewer, or Gore might have had the edge he claimed in challenging the outcome. It makes no difference now; the contest is settled in the only way it could be settled, by the laws as interpreted by the courts.
As the five-week struggle for Florida demonstrated, counting votes is not a precise science.
There already are proposals in Congress to have the federal government help states upgrade their voting systems. But no system yet devised could deliver the kind of precision that would guarantee a 537-vote margin out of 5,825,043 ballots to be exact and correct. Or the 930-vote edge Bush got in the first machine recount. Let alone the 193-vote edge the Florida Supreme Court left him in ordering the partial hand recounts that were stopped by the U.S. Supreme Court with the split decision that made Bush president-elect.
Perhaps in the laboratory, scientists could engineer a voting system to produce results that accurate, in this case to one ten-thousandth of 1 percent. But voting systems aren't used in laboratories. They are set up for election days in schoolhouses, town halls and all the other precinct settings of a diverse American election. Volunteer poll workers check in voters. After the polls close, local officials tabulate the returns.
In every step, there is room for error. And a slip on one ballot in 11,000 in Florida would have been enough to undo or widen the Bush margin.
That is apart from the uncertainties of judging voter intent on disputed ballots, the issue the Supreme Court settled Tuesday night by ending further recounts and effectively deciding that Bush won.
The 5 to 4 decision was as close as the Supreme Court can get, but not nearly so close as the election returns. And not only in Florida. Gore won the national popular vote by 337,576, a margin of three-tenths of 1 percent of the ballots cast for him or for Bush. Three states went to Gore by margins of less than 1 percent.
Those margins are smaller than the number of ballots nationally on which no vote for president registered, a fact the Supreme Court called a common ''if heretofore unnoticed phenomenon.''
''Nationwide statistics reveal that an estimated 2 percent of ballots cast do not register a vote for president for whatever reason, including deliberately choosing no candidate at all or some voter error, such as voting for two candidates or insufficiently marking a ballot,'' the court said in its decision. ''After the current counting, it is likely legislative bodies nationwide will examine ways to improve the mechanisms and machinery for voting,'' the justices said.
The last time there was a presidential election this close, the loser said even the winner acknowledged it was hard to tell who really got more votes. That was 40 years ago, in the election of John F. Kennedy.
Richard M. Nixon lost the popular vote by two-tenths of 1 percent in 1960, but Kennedy won comfortably in electoral votes.
Bush had a bare majority, 271, of the electoral college votes which are to be cast today.
After the 1960 election, Kennedy flew from Palm Beach -- a contest zone this time -- to Key Biscayne, Fla., for a unity meeting with Nixon. ''Well, it's hard to tell who won the election at this point,'' Nixon wrote that Kennedy said to him. There is no Kennedy account of what was said.
This hairbreadth election has prompted proposals in Congress for studies to develop new and better voting systems, then offer federal aid to states and communities to install them.
But better machines won't be perfect machines. Near deadlocks and recounts happen every election year, but not with the presidency in the balance. It took four House recounts and one Senate recount this year to settle the lineup in the new Congress.
In 1974 in New Hampshire, a count and two recounts produced a two-vote margin for a Senate seat. They settled on a new election to fill the seat, nine months late.
The presidency couldn't wait.
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EDITOR'S NOTE: Walter R. Mears has reported on Washington and national politics for The Associated Press for more than 35 years.
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