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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

Ballot Counters Sign Up to Have a Hand in History

November 18, 2000|JEFFREY GETTLEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Tony Maciekowich came dressed to make history in shorts, work boots, a T-shirt and a pack of Camels stuffed in his front pocket.

Maciekowich, a parks and recreation construction worker, usually spends his days thundering down I-95 in a dump truck. He's about as accustomed to handling paperwork or working in an office as he is to plucking a Stradivarius violin.

But this week he's a Broward County ballot counter in charge of a tally sheet and a stack of votes that could swing the U.S. presidential election. To him, the ballots look like an old punch card of his, just with a few more holes.

"This is going to be big, right?" Maciekowich said, grinning, as he walked into Broward County's recount center. "I mean, my grand-kids are going to read about this election and I get to count the votes. This is awesome."

Tony, Lucy, Brad, Steve, these are the people who are really in the cockpit of the news, the ones holding the fate of the election in their hands--at least for now. Some are pumped. Some are annoyed. Some seem not to care.

Because Broward and Palm Beach counties are intent on counting more than 1 million votes by hand as fast as is humanly possible, county administrators have drafted workers of all stripes to supplement the ranks of election office employees. Firefighters. Sheriff's deputies. Librarians. Truck drivers. Even volunteers who don't work for the county. All sit at tables watched by the world as the Florida recount plunges toward its cataclysmic end, whatever and whenever that may be.

Election officials in Miami-Dade County, the largest county in the state and heavily Democratic, voted Friday to perform their own manual hand counts, which typically unearth a small percentage of votes missed by machine counters. Democrat Al Gore is hoping to harvest enough votes to erase Republican George W. Bush's slim lead in Florida.

Republican observers have criticized hand counts and the counters themselves. They have barked at workers for dropping ballots on the floor and poking out chads, the Tic-Tac sized scraps of paper that are supposed to fall out only when votes are punched.

"These people are mishandling the ballots right in front of us," said Ed Pozzuoli, chairman of the Broward County Republican Party. "This shows why a hand recount is less accurate than a machine count."

Bush and James A. Baker III, Bush's key advisor, have said similar things.

According to quality control experts, of course there's room for error. When you use a process similar to an assembly line to handle 1 million of anything, there are bound to be a few mistakes.

"The inherent biases in human subjectivity can't be fully controlled," said Andrew Lo, an econometrics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In other words, nobody's perfect.

Says Howard Schussler, a member of the Milwaukee-based American Society for Quality: "If you did the hand count twice, the number would not be the same. That's just how people are."

Some can't see well. Others may get tired, lose their concentration and blunder. Also, as the Republicans have pointed out, there are not rigid standards for judging ballots. What one person may think is a spoiled ballot or a missing vote, another may not.

This may sound complicated, but the mechanics of a hand count are simple, mind-numbingly so. The most common complaint among counters is the dullness.

Handling Ballots in Teams

Here's how it works.

Ballots are counted in teams of four, with two official vote counters and two observers, one Democrat, one Republican. The four sit on the same side of a table in the recount center, which in Broward and Palm Beach counties are hurricane shelters. Broward County has at least 50 teams working at one time and Palm Beach County slightly fewer.

Only vote counters are allowed to touch ballots, which are about 8 inches long, 3 inches wide and made of heavy yellow paper. Observers are not allowed to even put their hands on the table.

A counter picks up a ballot, stares at it to see which hole was punched in the presidential race and says a number corresponding to the candidate's place on the ballot. Twenty-nine times out of 30 it's a clear-cut hole. The counter shows the card to the observer on his or her right and then passes it to the second counter who shows the ballot to the other observer and then puts it in one of six stacks, depending on the vote. The stacks are latter tallied.

Most of the time it's a low-energy process of picking up ballots, putting them down, picking up more ballots, putting them down, with little conversation. It's about as exciting as drying dishes.

But then there are those few "challenges," sometimes as infrequent as two in a stack of a thousand. If either observer sees a hanging chad, a dimple, a stray mark on the ballot, for example, the observer says "challenge" and the ballot is placed in the challenge stack, to be reviewed later by the county's canvassing board.

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