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The Inexact Science of Voting

Error: People draw on, punch or otherwise mark ballots in myriad ways. Machines can't always interpret them, but humans sometimes can.


WASHINGTON — Al Gore is all for a manual recount: He portrays it as fair and impartial--and he hopes it will deliver the Florida votes that stand between him and the presidency.

George W. Bush is dead set against it: If the vote as of Saturday is certified, he will sleep in the White House on Jan. 20.

A manual recount of Florida's ballots might or might not vault Gore over Bush, who held a 930-vote lead Saturday after overseas absentee ballots were tallied.

But a county-by-county examination by The Times of the Nov. 7 balloting leaves little doubt that a recount would give additional votes to both candidates. People mark, punch or otherwise cast their ballots in idiosyncratic ways; ways that machines cannot interpret but election officials sometimes can.

Ballots that registered a presidential choice when read by machine are not likely to be read differently by election officials, according to election supervisors. Neither candidate is likely to pick up more than a handful of votes from such ballots.

But of the nearly 6 million ballots cast in Florida, about 180,000 were disqualified because the voting machine read them as showing either multiple choices for president or no choice at all.

It is among those that election officials are most likely to find that voters intended to mark their ballots for one and only one of the candidates. So it is among those ballots that Democratic candidate Gore has his best chance of finding additional votes in a hand recount.

The Florida Supreme Court will hear arguments Monday concerning whether the secretary of state, a Republican, may certify Bush's slim lead as the official count. Gore's side has asked that the final result include the recounts already underway or about to begin in three populous, and largely Democratic, South Florida counties, where it hopes to find the votes it needs for a win.

If the jurists--a majority of whom were appointed by Democrats--order that the final result include the recounts, Republican nominee Bush could demand a recount of the entire state. It would be difficult for Gore, who proposed such a course last week, to stand in the way.

In recounts, officials say, both candidates surely would gain some votes, because the human eye can see things missed by machines.

"In a hand recount, the vote totals usually go up on both sides," said Conny McCormack, registrar-recorder of Los Angeles County, the largest election district in the nation.

"They change by a minuscule number, but that's all we're talking about right now," she said, referring to Bush's lead. "A minuscule number could make the difference."

The Times' survey of 59 of Florida's 67 counties found 91,244 disqualified ballots in counties that favored Gore and 83,314 in counties favoring Bush. But that doesn't necessarily mean that more of the disqualified ballots were cast by Gore supporters than by Bush backers.

In the state-ordered automated recount that was done just three days after the election, Gore picked up more than twice as many votes as Bush gained--1,571 to Bush's 664. In Republican-leaning Duval County in North Florida, which includes Jacksonville, for instance, Gore picked up 184 votes to 16 more for Bush. The results of that recount are included in Florida's current vote totals.

In The Times' survey of Florida counties, several patterns emerged:

* A recount probably would yield more changes in the 27 counties that use punch card systems than in the other counties.

* Most of the additional votes in punch card counties would come from "under-voted" ballots--those in which machines were unable to read any choice for president.

* "Over-voted" ballots are more common than under-voted ballots in counties where voters were asked to shade an oval next to their presidential selection or draw a line between the word "president" and the name of the candidate.

Punch card systems yield high under-votes because people often fail to completely dislodge the little perforated paper tabs, or chads, next to their presidential selection so that the machine can read the ballots. But when a person instead of a machine examines the ballots, they frequently can tell that a voter intended to punch out a hole.

Most punch-card systems are at least 15 years old, and some date to the 1970s. Old machinery can get worn down after voters jam cards through them for years, resulting in fewer completely punched holes.

Many counties stick with their punch card systems because of the expense of replacing them. Florida's Brevard County, along the central Atlantic coast, had so many problems with its punch cards that it switched this year to ballots that require voters to blacken small ovals next to the candidates of their choice.

"Last time we ran a presidential election--in 1996--I had about 2,700 over-votes and about that many under-votes," Brevard County election supervisor Fred Galey said. This year, he said, there were a mere 413 over-votes and under-votes combined out of about 220,000 ballots cast.

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