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Punch-card ballots notorious for inaccuracies

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Florida recount has left many puzzled not only about the results of last Tuesday's elections, but about the method: The kind of punch-card ballot under scrutiny in Florida has been notorious for its inaccuracy.

The Gore campaign held a Wednesday morning news conference in which they announced their request that the Florida Supreme Court rule on hand counts (November 15)

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The so-called "Votomatic" system developed in the 1960s is based on technology that has been considered obsolete for years. Now, the outcome of the November 7 presidential race hangs on whether as few as two Florida counties are allowed to conduct manual recounts of punch-card ballots to include those wrongly discarded due to "hanging" chad.

The hanging bits of paper and the miscounts they cause have long been a problem. Now, with Vice President Al Gore trailing Texas Gov. George W. Bush by only 300 votes in Florida, Gore aides have gone to court to push for manual recounts. Bush's campaign argues that hand counts are unreliable, and machine counts will result in a more accurate count.

But the punch-card ballots used in counties like Broward and Palm Beach counties are so prone to inaccurate counting that a National Bureau of Standards report recommended their elimination more than a decade ago. The bureau stated in 1988: "It is generally not possible to exactly duplicate a count obtained on pre-scored punch cards."

Other groups have reached the same conclusion, for the same reason -- that the so-called "chad" left over from marking the ballot can foul the machines used to count votes, forcing the machine to kick out the ballot. Among the races that led to those assessments was a 1984 race for property appraiser in Palm Beach County, Florida -- one of the counties at the center of the dispute in the presidential race.

The Florida recount and its aftermath have prompted many to call for better methods of casting ballots. But the system does have its defenders.

Paul Nolte, the president of the Election Resources Corporation, which designed the software used to print ballots in Florida's Palm Beach County -- one of two jurisdictions pushing for a manual recount -- says punch cards work fine if voters follow instructions to remove any hanging chad.

"I don't think there are any problems with the punch-card voting system," Nolte said. "I think that no matter what voting system you're using, there is a certain responsibility, that's the voter's responsibility, to cast a ballot according to the way that they were instructed to cast the ballot."

About 19 percent of voters use old-fashioned lever machines, which are no longer manufactured. The trend is toward paper ballots that are scanned optically, which more than a quarter of voters use, or electronic systems, which about 9 percent of voters use.

Punch-card ballots are still used by about a third of American voters, mainly because they're cheap. Upgrading to electronic systems could cost a county with a population of 1 million as much as $20 million. Larry Naake, director of the National Association of Counties, said voting machines usually lose out to other priorities like public safety, public health and road construction at budget time.

"You have to make decisions, and people only go the polls about once a year," Naake said.


Wednesday, November 15, 2000



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