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Experts Say Both Machine, Hand Counts Pose Problems

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By John Mintz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 19, 2000; Page A1

As the dispute over the presidential election drags on, Republicans are backing the reliability of counts done by voting machines over the messier process of logging votes by hand. Democrats argue that machine counts in such a close election need a hand review to make certain the true intention of the voters is being honored.

Experts on conducting elections say both sides have valid points.

The type of voting machine used in Palm Beach County and numerous other Florida counties-employing the punch-card ballot system-is an antiquated contraption that has been denounced by many computing experts since its invention in the 1960s. The federal government has called for the elimination of punch-card machines since 1988, saying they cause many people to cast invalid votes or vote for the wrong candidate.

"People should stop making excuses for this unreliable system, and scrap it," said Roy Saltman, a former technology monitor for the old National Bureau of Standards.

With punch cards, "the only way to positively know how many votes were cast for each candidate is to do a manual recount," said Kimball Brace, president of Election Data Services, a consulting firm working for both parties.

At the same time, experts say, manual vote recounts of the punch-card ballots are problematic as they are being conducted in Florida, where there are no statewide standards and counties are employing differing and sometimes shifting tests for how to do the reviews.

"The problem in Florida is the procedures for recounts aren't well spelled out in Florida law," Brace said. "That's what Republicans are hitting on."

Indeed, Montana Gov. Mark Racicot (R), who has been enlisted by Texas Gov. George W. Bush to oversee the recounting process, said Americans would be "flabbergasted to learn how we're going about trying to assure authenticity in this process of recounting votes in Florida."

Recounts are rarely conducted under the kind of intense scrutiny and marathon counting sessions taking place there, but they often generate powerful emotions. "Recounts are never pretty, because candidates and their supporters are almost paranoid about it," said R. Doug Lewis of the Election Center, a nonpartisan group that certifies election officials.

The two sides, he added, "become like spoiled children. They say and do anything to win their case."

But Lewis and other outside observers agreed that the conditions in Florida produce the potential for a far-from-perfect result. "The pressure on the counting teams is enormous," Lewis said. "Unless your mind stays extraordinarily focused and unless you have extraordinary powers of concentration, you have a high chance for error."

But Brace said the process as portrayed on live television does not appear particularly out of line. "All recounts can appear chaotic, but I'm not taken aback by what I'm seeing on TV in Florida," Brace said. "When you have auditoriums full of people, it may seem chaotic when it isn't."

Despite the debate in Florida, Republicans losing an election ask for recounts just as frequently as Democrats do. In fact, some of the GOP lawyers criticizing the hand count in Florida have mounted just this kind of legal appeal. In 1994, Bush lawyer Benjamin Ginsberg represented Edward Munster in requesting a recount and new election after Munster lost to Rep. Sam Gejdenson (D-Conn.) by four votes. The state's highest court ordered a recount, but in the end Gejdenson won by 21 votes.

Despite the dispute over the recounts, there is little disagreement among the experts that punch-card machines are not the best way to tabulate votes.

"We need a system where the smallest number of people do strange things," said Saltman, who has been critical of the machines for decades. "Here, the problem is the system, not the people."

The machines can cause particularly bizarre results when ballots are laid out in a way that perplexes voters, election experts say. In Florida, the presidential ballots in Palm Beach and Duval counties were displayed over two pages, apparently setting off mass voter confusion and leading to what electoral specialists say were extremely high numbers of people voting for two candidates-votes that are automatically invalidated.

Punch-card machines were invented in 1962 by Joseph Harris, a Berkeley political scientist. He had his flash of insight-putting IBM's cutting-edge 3-by-7-inch punch cards to new use counting votes-while lying on his bed with pads covering his eyes as he recovered from cataract surgery.

Election officials liked the machines because they were relatively cheap, and fast. By the mid-1970s, half the country was using them, although only about one-third of citizens vote with them today.

But problems began cropping up immediately. The main difficulty is that many voters don't properly insert the ballot into the plastic wedge intended for it, or they punch their hole in the wrong place-either next to an unintended candidate or not close enough to a candidate's name. Voters often can't figure out where to punch because they're looking at the ballot diagonally rather than down.

In any case, punch-card ballots don't contain the candidates' names, so voters can't figure out whether they voted correctly by looking at the cards. They're unique among voting systems in that respect, as well as in being the only system requiring a new ballot if a voter makes a mistake.

"You have to sheepishly admit to an election worker you're an idiot and you've ruined your ballot," said Michael Shamos, a Carnegie Mellon University computer scientist and voting technology consultant to Pennsylvania and Texas. "It's one of many reasons I've strongly recommended against buying punch-card machines."

In 1985, Dallas, which was then Bush's home, experienced a fiasco with punch-card ballots-3 percent of the vote in local elections was invalidated because voters punched holes in the wrong places. "Chad" also so gummed up counting machines that they broke down, and software glitches kept freakishly changing vote totals all election night. The outcry led the Texas legislature to crack down on the vote machine industry.

One punch-card mix-up may have reversed a Senate election-the Florida Senate race in 1988, when Democrat Buddy MacKay lost to Republican Connie Mack by 34,000 votes out of 4 million cast. In four large Democratic counties MacKay carried, 200,000 fewer people voted in the Senate race than for president, and election officials thought that was because the Senate race appeared at the bottom of the ballot, under the White House race.

But electoral specialists' suspicions were raised because of the varying experiences of counties with that ballot configuration-while the drop-off in votes between president and Senate was 25 percent in Hillsborough, it was only 1 percent in Pinellas. The voting experts suspect software problems, or some sort of voter confusion, in Hillsborough.

Improperly aligned punch holes were the culprit in a Wisconsin congressional race in 1993, when Republican Mark Neumann lost to Democrat Peter Barca by 675 votes. Election officials angered GOP activists by ruling as "blanks" 1,100 ballots on which voters had slightly misplaced punch holes. "It was the only race in that election, so why would somebody go to the polls and then not vote?" Saltman said.

In a recent report on the specific brand used in Palm Beach, the Votomatic, the liberal-leaning Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility pointed out that the machines' advanced age causes errors and breakdowns. Even humidity takes its toll, the group said: "Taking a box of Votomatic cards from an air-conditioned room on a humid evening to another air-conditioned room will have unpredictable effects. It may take the cards some time to settle down after the ordeal."

Punch-card machines have their defenders. "It's not the optimum system, but it's not fatally flawed," said Los Angeles County Registrar of Voters Conny McCormack. "Voters can indeed make mistakes. . . . [But] it's done pretty well." If she had $100 million, she said, she would buy more modern, touch-screen computer voting machines.

The company that originally made Votomatics and other punch-card machines, now called Election Systems & Software, offered only a limited endorsement. "Misvotes happen on all systems," said Todd Urosevich, customer relations vice president. Noting that no community has converted to punch cards in more than a decade, he said, "As a vendor, we feel a responsibility to supply our customers with punch cards and technology to tabulate them."

He acknowledged that among all voting systems, punch-card machines yield twice the rate of people marking votes for two candidates-the type of invalid vote that was noted in high numbers in Palm Beach, Miami-Dade and Jacksonville on Nov. 7.

"You need to be very careful using these systems," Urosevich said.

Experts say the punch-card system is so flawed that the only way to tote up an accurate count is to examine the ballots before they're fed into the vote-counting machine for the first time. For example, if an election worker notes a mostly punched out chad or rectangular box next to a candidate's name, then the worker is supposed to pull off the dangling chad, guaranteeing the machine counts that vote for that candidate.

Most counties with punch-card systems across the country-but not those in Florida-do just that before machine-counting their ballots on election night, said Ernest Hawkins, president of the National Association of County Recorders, Election Officers and Clerks.

"We manually inspect each ballot before counting," Hawkins said, referring to workers in Sacramento County, Calif., where he is registrar of voters. "On election night, we're making a call on what voter intent was."

Robert Naegele, who certifies voting systems for California, said punch card machines' vote counts are undependable unless election workers intervene in this way. "You turn the card over and remove the chad if it's hanging by an edge," he said. With chads that are "dimpled" but not pushed through, "it may be determined a voter intended to vote it. . . . There are fairly rational rules."

© 2000 The Washington Post Company


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