Just days after Missouri voters elected a dead man to the Senate, the American presidency is being decided on the basis of telepathy. No word better describes the way some Florida officials are hand counting ballots in the Sunshine State’s deadlocked presidential tally.
In Gadsden County, near Tallahassee, witnesses say that Democratic county judge Richard Hood and two other Democrats on the canvassing commission reviewed 187 ballots last Wednesday that had been rejected by a tabulation machine. They “interpreted” ballots on which there was “more than 1 candidate’s bubble selected” as well as some with “no candidate properly selected” but with “markings that indicated the voter’s intent.”
Hood and his helpers then ascertained precisely what voters meant when they chose more than one candidate — or none at all. Would, for instance, a straight Democratic party-line ballot with no presidential vote suggest a Gore supporter who simply forgot to punch the hole beside the vice president’s name? Or was this a potential Nader voter who wanted to stick it to Gore, but couldn’t stick it to his ballot card? Maybe someone agreed with the Democrats on domestic issues but wanted George W. Bush to handle defense matters — and then got last-minute cold feet. Or perhaps one of America’s great undecided voters simply remained undecided and didn’t vote for president.
Even the Psychic Friends Network would struggle to untangle all this. But not the Gadsden County Canvassing Commission. Of the 187 ballots disqualified on Election Night, they ruled that Gore won 170 while 17 went to Bush.
Meanwhile, Ken Sukhia — a former U.S. attorney based in Tallahassee who is assisting the Bush campaign — tried to observe the recount. He said he was barred from the counting room but invited to watch…through a window.
“I was told that I could not come in,” he told Erin Hayes of ABC News. “I was prohibited from going into that room, and I was flabbergasted to hear that that was the position they were taking.”
While he — like all observers — was kept outside, Democrat Jeff DiSantis said Gadsden officials attempted to be “as accurate, as fair, and as within the law as they possibly could.”
But Sukhia would beg to differ. “I couldn’t believe they were doing this,” he said. “They had been asked to do a recount and a recount only. They took it upon themselves to examine ballots which had been rejected the night before.”
This is precisely the kind of mischief that the Bush-Cheney team is trying to block in federal court today. As former Secretary of State James Baker said at a Saturday news conference, “Machines are neither Republican nor Democratic, and therefore can be neither consciously nor unconsciously biased.”
Americans these days are learning a brand-new lexicon of election methodology. First, Palm Beach County’s butterfly ballots gently fluttered onto the national landscape. Now, the headlines are filled with talk of hanging chad, swinging chad, and dimpled chad. A trio of Malibu surfers? No such luck. These are various types of small holes created in punch cards when citizens vote. When one clings to a ballot card, even barely, a counting machine may misjudge it as a non-vote, even though someone might have picked a candidate.
After selecting four test precincts, Palm Beach officials spent much of Saturday discerning if a chad were swinging (two corners attached to the ballot), in which case it counted as a vote, or dimpled (indented, but still sticking to the ballot), which rendered it neutral. Making such refined judgments presents multiple problems.
One is ballot fatigue. After two machine counts and now manual handling, these ballot cards increasingly suffer wear and tear. It doesn’t take much to turn an uncounted dimpled chad — deliberately or accidentally — into a tri chad (three corners adhering to the ballot), which constitutes a vote. Likewise, a tri chad could get squeezed back into the ballot card, thus negating a legitimate vote.
Second, Palm Beach officials changed their guidelines for divining voter intent in mid recount. Some were checked for chad. Others were subject to a “light test.” If light appeared through a ballot hole, it registered as a vote. Otherwise, it did not. Florida lacks uniform standards for judging voter intent in ballot hand counts. Palm Beach County used at least two in the same recount.
Finally, the issue of human fatigue is crucial. Even assuming ballots in Florida are checked by honest, even-handed, objective poll workers, they must engage in an incredibly repetitive and tedious task. Imagine looking at your 757th ballot. And then your 758th. And then your 759th.
Bush. Gore. Gore. No vote. Bush. Gore. Nader. God, am I hungry. Gore. Buchanan. Bush. Gore. Bush. Damn! Whose cell phone is that? Bush. Bush. Bush. I better call the gardener when I get home. Gore. No vote. Yawn. Gore. Bush. Oops, I counted that ballot already…didn’t I?
It took nine hours to hand-count 1 percent of the ballots in Palm Beach alone. Assuming officials work 24 hours per day, it will take 891 hours to hand count the remaining 99 percent of the county’s ballots. Those intervening 37 and a half days stretch at least to December 19, the day after the Electoral College meets. Palm Beach county official Carol Roberts said today on Good Morning America that the hand count could be finished by Friday. That sounds like a rush to judgment — and a recipe for paper cuts.
This is a disaster in the making. Americans should pray that the Bush-Cheney lawsuit prevails. Barring that, perhaps Gadsden County’s canvassing commission could use its clairvoyance to contact James Madison, father of the Constitution. He’ll know what to do.