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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

Vote Is Out on Hand Recounts

Balloting: Supporters of manual tallies say it is the most inclusive method. Those who argue against them point to the increased chance for human error.

November 17, 2000|AARON ZITNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Like the rest of America, the people who supervise elections for a living have heard the debate about counting ballots by hand--whether it is the most accurate way to measure votes, as the Gore campaign says, or prone to error and mischief, as the Bush campaign contends.

But in a presidential election full of ambiguity and voter indecision, the nation's election administrators can only offer one more bit of equivocation: When it comes to manual recounts, both Al Gore and George W. Bush are right.

"I know it's confusing, folks, but they are both correct," said R. Doug Lewis, executive director of the Election Center in Houston, a nonpartisan association of election officials. "There's truth in each side's statement."

A machine recount can process a large number of ballots quickly with fewer counting errors than people would make, election professionals said. "With punch cards, there's no way in the world that a manual recount is going to be as accurate as a machine recount," said Brit Williams, a computer science professor at Kennesaw State University in Georgia who served on a federal panel that set specifications for voting machines.

But machines usually work only when the voter has properly marked the ballot, leaving no stray markings or half-punched holes. And in close elections, many states have a long tradition of trying to include as many voters as possible. They do not want to exclude voters merely because they failed to fill out a ballot to a machine's specifications.

"Manual recounts are an established practice and here's why: We want to include as many voters as we can when we can tell clearly what their intent was," Lewis said. "To do that, you need to look at the ballots by hand."

Election administrators acknowledge that hand counting introduces uncertainties. As James A. Baker III, the former secretary of State who is Bush's advisor in Florida, has put it: "It presents tremendous opportunities for human error and, indeed, for the possibility of mischief."

Officials Say Oversight, Clear Rules Are Key

Some election officials said that those uncertainties can be planned for and overcome by including both political parties in the recount and by making sure there are clear rules for determining how to read the ballot markings.

In North Carolina, for example, a team of six people reviews each ballot. Two read the ballot, two keep track of the tally and two observe. In each pair, one person is a Democrat and one a Republican.

"I can assure you that, even though it may be labor intensive, it is an extremely accurate count," said Gary Bartlett, executive director of the state Board of Elections. Not only does a manual count include ballots rejected by machines because of voter error, he said, but it includes ballots that have been rejected for other reasons, such as dust in the tabulating machine or a stray drop of ink from the printer.

Gore himself made a similar point during his television appearance Wednesday night: "There is a simple reason that Florida law, and the law in many other states, calls for a careful check by real people of the machine results in elections like this one. The reason: Machines can sometimes misread or fail to detect the way ballots are cast."

But not every state sanctions manual recounts or assumes them to be a better judge of voter intent than machines. Tennessee does not mention manual recounts in its laws and only a judge can order one. There has not been a recount of any kind for senior state offices in at least five years, said Brook Thompson, the state's election coordinator.

Moreover, some election professionals do not believe that vote counters can correctly determine voter intent by looking at a ballot. A voter may have indented a hole in a punch card but not punched it through completely for any number of reasons. The voter may have meant to vote for that candidate, said Williams, or was just resting the stylus near that candidate's name while studying the ballot.

While Florida counties are recounting punch card ballots, some election professionals believe that it is generally easier to determine voter intent for ballots in optical scan voting systems, where the voter fills in a "bubble" or another marking next to a candidate's name.

Machines tend to reject these ballots if the voter puts a check mark in the bubble or circles the bubble or fills it in incompletely. But with any of those actions, the voter has usually left clear evidence of a preferred candidate.

In determining whether Gore or Bush is most right about manual counts, Denise Lamb, director of elections in New Mexico, had this advice: "You have to go back to how you listened to them before the election, because this is all being politically driven now.

"We're not talking about the facts here. It's all spin."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Double Punched

*--*

Number of ballots Holes punched on ballot with that combination 3, 5 (Bush, Gore) 3 4, 5 (Buchanan, Gore) 80 5, 7 (Gore, Browne) 5 5, 6 (Gore, McReynolds) 21

*--*

Source: Palm Beach County court, Times staff

A sampling of number sequences for multiple votes cast in Palm Beach County--the so-called over-count. This data comes from the four-precinct sample counted on Saturday.

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