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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

Past Recounts Matched Man and Machine

November 17, 2000|SCOTT MARTELLE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Despite the current confusion and legal wrangling over hand recounts in Florida, manual recounts have been the method of last resort in a number of local elections there in recent years.

Hand recounts in the Sunshine State have been ordered in circumstances such as allegations of fraud and razor-thin vote margins.

A common thread in several of the recounts was questions over how the human end of voting--the casting of ballots--meshed with the mechanical end--how ballots were processed and counted.

Similar issues have been raised in presidential voting in Palm Beach County, where some voters apparently failed to punch out holes sufficiently enough for the tabulating machine to read.

In neighboring Broward County, election officials argued that discrepancies between the initial count and recount--both done mechanically--led them to believe a hand count was called for there.

Similar circumstances in a 1996 county commissioners' race in rural Polk County led to a hand recount that eventually overturned the initial results. In the first count, Bruce Parker was 30 votes ahead of Marlene Young for a seat on the County Commission. After a second machine count cut Parker's lead to 19 votes, a hand recount gave Young the seat by 16 votes.

The hand recount was done "because the vote totals changed on the machine recount," said Judy Walker, an administrative assistant in the Polk County election office in Bartow, 40 miles east of Tampa in central Florida.

"It was just so close we wanted to make sure everything was right," Walker said, adding that Polk County uses bubble cards, in which voters fill in a circle next to the name of a candidate. A computer then scans the ballot. "We had some votes where they had circled the candidate's name rather than fill in an oval."

Whether that constitutes a mechanical error or human error--the computer failed to read the ballots because of mistakes that voters made--is what lawyers are fighting over now.

Florida Division of Elections Director L. Clayton Roberts, writing on Republican Secretary of State Katherine Harris' letterhead, recommended to the Palm Beach County canvassing board this week that it should not proceed with a hand recount because any faults with the ballots should be considered human error.

"Unless the discrepancy between the number of votes determined by the [machine] tabulation system and by the manual recount . . . is caused by incorrect election parameters or software errors, the county canvassing board is not authorized to manually recount ballots for the entire county," Roberts said.

But Florida Atty. Gen. Bob Butterworth, a Democrat, argued that the failure of a machine to "discern the choices of the voters" can be considered a "mechanical malfunction," giving the three-member canvassing board the right to proceed with the recount.

"The statutes do not specify how a punch card must be punched," he said. "Clearly, there may be instances where a punch card . . . was not punched or marked in a manner in which the electronic or electro-mechanical equipment was able to read the ballot."

The inability of machines to read ballots in a Volusia County sheriff's election four years ago also led to a hand recount. Elections officials examined ballots and used felt-tip pens to darken voters' initial marks on 6,500 ballots so that the tabulating machine could read them.

Incumbent Robert L. Vogel Jr. won the initial count and the recount. Challenger Gus Beckstrom sued, arguing that election officials had erred in remarking absentee ballots.

A Florida appeals court upheld a lower court ruling that the ballots should not have been inked over by election workers but that the actions did not affect the election outcome.

And in St. Petersburg in 1995, David Fischer was named mayor after five months of dispute over vote results that ended with a hand recount of 73,913 ballots.

At issue was whether new software used to tabulate computer-scanned votes had functioned properly, said St. Petersburg City Clerk Jane Brown.

It had.

"Very few ballots changed," Brown said. "There was very little difference between the original count and the [hand] recount."

*

Times staff writer Scott Gold in West Palm Beach, Fla., contributed to this story.

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