U.S. election may turn on obsolete vote card system

WEST PALM BEACH, Florida, Reuters

Who gets the biggest job in the world — the presidency of the United States — may hang on arcane arguments over votes cast with obsolete technology using old fashioned IBM cards. Election to the White House hinges on Florida’s 25 electoral votes, if no other states change. Texas Gov. George W. Bush holds a margin of only a few hundred votes over Vice President Al Gore among nearly six million cast in the state, so election officials are reexamining ballots. In much of Florida, voters record their ballots by pushing pins through rectangular holes next to the name of their candidate on old-fashioned 3-1/2-inch (8.89-centimeter) by seven-inch (17.78 centimeter) IBM cards. The tiny fallout, about one-quarter inch (6.35 millimeter) by one-eighth inch (3.175 millimeter), is known as “chad.” The trouble is, not all chad fall out. Some remain hanging to the ballot and are not counted by machine. So ballots from a sample four precincts were counted by hand on Saturday in heavily Democratic Palm Beach County. Workers segregated questionable ballots. For hours, election officials and party representatives rotated and turned over the questionable cards to scrutinize them in every possible way — but very, very carefully. “Never touch the chad,” cautioned Therese LePore, the Palm Beach County supervisor of elections, sitting with the two other members of the canvassing board as they tried to divine voters’ intent. Rules and traditions have developed over the years for reviewing partially punched cards that are designed to be read by machine, but they differ from state to state. In Florida, some voter manipulation of the ballot short of a clear hole counts as a vote, but other actions do not. “Somebody attempted to push through something,” LePore said as she looked at one ballot late on Saturday afternoon. “Even though you see someone attempted to do something, you see no light,” replied Charles Burton, chairman of the canvassing board. At another point he said all the board was trying to do was “determine … if light is coming through.” A ballot poke with no light coming through is known as a “dimple” for the shape it imparts to the back of the card. A more vigorous poke can loosen up the chad and permit light to leak through, even though it remains attached at all four corners. At first, the board counted such “pregnant” chad, but after reviewing its guidelines decided to change course and reexamine all of its work on questionable cards. In the end, the board allowed pokes that resulted in hanging, swinging door, or tri-chad votes, that is, chad attached by one, two, or three corners respectively. Ben Kuehne, representing Democrats, objected. A good number of questionable ballots had dimples or pregnant pokes for Gore, far more than for Bush. They went into a special envelope for Democratic objections. Eight or more hours after the work began counting just 1 percent of all votes cast in the county, it was over. Counters reported a net change of 19 votes for Gore and the board decided they should count the other 99 percent as well. An unofficial survey of all counties by the Associated Press, cited by media organizations, said Bush was ahead by a mere 327 votes. He was originally credited with a 1,784-vote lead after election night.