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Democracy Under Stress

Have butterfly ballots and chads undermined the credibility of how we elect our leaders?

November 19, 2000|Ronnie Dugger | Ronnie Dugger is the author of biographies of Lyndon B. Johnson and Ronald Reagan, and founder of the Alliance for Democracy, a national populist organization. He has been reporting on the history of elections and the dangers of computerized vote counting since 1987 and is writing a book on the subject

SOMERVILLE, MASS. — Never before November 2000 has a major political party contended that computers' vote counts are more accurate than those of people looking at the ballots and at each other looking at the ballots.

James A. Baker III, leading the charge of the George W. Bush campaign to stop people's recounting of their own ballots in Florida, righteously exclaimed that the "precision machinery" that counted and recounted the votes for president in the state was more accurate than the recounts by people provided for in Florida law. Manual counting, Baker said, entailed subjective decisions, human error and politics. Rejecting the idea of the people of Florida recounting all the votes they cast for president, which would take about a week, Baker said that would just be extending a flawed process statewide.

The vote-counting systems in Florida are not precision machinery, such as adding machines. They are computers, which are machines that obey orders. The antique Vote-O-Matic punch-card voting systems in use in Broward and Palm Beach counties, where the canvassing boards are recounting ballots, have been associated for 25 years with inaccuracies caused by slipping card feeds and "hanging chads," which are tiny scraps of punched-out vote holes that do not fully detach from the vote card. In effect, the Bush campaign has declared that computer vote counting precludes citizens' recounting their own ballots in the third of the country where the rickety, often error-prone Vote-O-Matic machines are used in elections.

Last week, Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR), which has been studying Vote-O-Matic-type counting systems for more than 10 years, said that the Vote-O-Matic system "has inherent accuracy limitations" and that "careful manual counting of Vote-O-Matic ballots should always be more accurate than machine counts."

In this system, voters punch out holes beside candidates' names on a card, and the card is passed through a card reader that shoots light through the holes and counts up the votes--that is, the points of light coming through the holes--for each candidate. Sometimes, CPSR said, two ballot cards are sucked into the system's card reader at one time. "Hanging chad can flip open and close. Detached chad can become stuck in the feed path, increasing double feeds and misfeeds. . . . Detached chad can jam over the light or sensor, causing holes [that is, votes] to not be read until the chad blows out of the way."

Peter Neumann, a senior computer scientist at SRI International and one of the leading authorities on computerized vote counting in the country, was similarly skeptical of precision vote-counting machinery. "The Vote-O-Matic is not accurate enough; there's hanging and floating chad and so on," he said. "But hand counting is substantially more accurate in reporting the true intent of the voters."

More in point, Neumann says, is the comparability of what happened to former Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay of Florida in his 1988 race for the U.S. Senate, which he lost by fewer than 35,000 votes out of more than 4 million cast.

"Undervotes"--the failure of votes to register on a voted ballot--occurred on about 10,000 ballots in Palm Beach County this year, where Vice President Al Gore has strong support. In 1988, in MacKay's four Democratic stronghold counties, there were 210,000 people who voted for president but did not vote in the U.S. Senate race. In a comparable U.S. Senate race in a presidential-election year--1980--in the same four counties, three out of every 100 presidential voters did not vote for senator; in 1988, 14 of every 100 did not. In the entire state of Florida, excluding the four MacKay counties, fewer than one of 100 presidential voters--25,000--were not recorded as also voting in the Senate race. Three of the MacKay counties in 1988 are among Gore's big four recount counties.

MacKay believed "very strongly" that the Senate election was stolen from him. He suspected, as a reason for the vote drop-off, the use, in the questioned counties, of a ballot layout that crowded the Senate race onto the bottom of the same page with the presidential race. The voting electorate for president dropped to 86% for the Senate, then jumped back up to 97% for secretary of state. Suspecting, too, "a problem in the [computerized vote-counting] software," MacKay asked that his campaign be permitted to examine it in five counties, but was refused on grounds that it was the secret property of the election-business companies. "A damned outrage," he said of this.

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