November 28, 2000

Blame Florida

It is tempting to blame Bush for suing to stop the votes from being counted, or Gore for endless legal manouvering to somehow make the election come out his way, or little old ladies in Palm Beach who can manage 15 Bingo cards but couldn't figue out the ballot, or Katherine Harris for having too much make-up or the Florida Supreme Court for intervening or the US Supreme Court for intervening... The list goes on.

I blame Florida because nobody there seems to have a clue about how to hold a fair election. This is not a partisan issue because both Democrats and Republicans have built and maintained the system, if you can call it that, that failed to produce a result. We have to accept that whatever happens now, half the country is going to feel cheated. Why? Because Florida can't count votes.

How do you know who won a close election?

1) There have to be voting machines that accurately record the votes cast. Machines are necessary, whether they use gears and levers; punch cards, optical scanners or some other technology, because they are fast and generally accurate. Most ballots will be quickly and accurately read by a good machine. A bad machine, however, will lend itself to outright cheating or confused results. Machines that have been found to produce significantly inaccurate or incomplete results should be replaced. There should be a system to audit the results as part of the certification of the election. The purpose of the audit should be to verify the accuracy of whatever voting system is in use and/or to identify problems so they can be dealt with.

2) There has to be an agreement about what constitutes a vote. Clearly, if the intent of the voter can be reasonably determined, then that intent should prevail even if there are technical problems. An extraneous mark, incorrect ink color or a hanging chad should not disqualify a ballot, even if the machine can't read it. Ballots that are disqualified by the machine should be examined by a human being to determine what the intent of the voter was. This only works if the machine can flag the problem ballots so a person can find them and look at them. If there are a small number of problem ballots, it will be easy to examine each one. If there are a lot of problems, it may be indicative of problems in the machine, so they should be examined carefully and corrective action should be taken.

3) There has to be a procedure in place before the election that provides for a recount under certain well defined circumstances, such as a winning margin of less than 1/2 of 1%. Candidates also have to have the option of requesting a recount.

4) There has to be a well defined procedure for conducting a recount. The same standards should apply for the whole election. This will specifiy what gets counted, who conducts the recount and what counts as a vote. The purpose of the recount is to provide a more accurate result than the original count. Special care should be taken with ballots that have been disputed or rejected by the machines to insure that all qualified voters have their votes counted. Observers from both sides and the news media should be able to verify that everything is done properly and according to the accepted procedures.

So how does Florida stack up?

1) The punch cards used in some Florida counties were woefully inadequate. There is a long history of uncertainties created by chads that are not completely removed. In many cases the attempt to vote is foiled by a bad machine. This is clearly a scandal. Florida has had these problems for years and has not dealt with them. Now it has reared up to cast the Presidential election in doubt.
Additionally, the infamous butterfly ballot has proved to be a huge mistake. Thousands of voters were confused and either voted for the wrong candidate or for two candidates by mistake. Over 4% of the votes cast in Palm Beach County were disqualified for this very reason. Out of 25 people in line at the polls, one person did not have their vote counted. That is outrageious.

2) Every county in Florida has their own standard for whether to count hanging chads or dimples. Palm Beach county counts dimples only if a given ballot has lots of them. Other counties count them regardless. Even within a county, the election boards had to decide as they went along what to count and what not to count. Other states have established a standard and stuck to it. Florida could do neither. As a result the election officers trying to do their job were subject to public pressure, lawsuits and suspicion that they were not acting impartially. It cast the result of the election in doubt.

3) Florida does provide for an automatic recount in very close elections. This part of the process worked well. Nobody disputed that there should be a recount due to the closeness of the election.

4) The recount procedures in Florida were wholly inadequate. The intial recount by machine did nothing more than was done election night. Problem ballots were not examined. The machines read the ballots a little differently but there was no reason to think that the second time was more accurate.
The manual recount was not done statewide, leading to charges that it was an attempt to select areas that would help one candidate.
There was no attempt to isolate the problem ballots and determine the intent of those voters. Instead the manual recount spent incredible amounts of time reviewing ballots that been read accurately by the machines in the first place.

A more productive procedure would have started the recount with a machine recount, folowed by manual examination of ballots rejected by the machines. The same standards should be used statewide. Then any other disputes about any challenged ballots should be examined and resolved according to preset procedures. At the end of this process there would be a pretty clear result with little room for legal challenges.

Of course, Florida isn't the only place with these kinds of problems. We all should examine procedures in our own states and localities to make sure they live up to these standards. This messed up election should be an impetus to clean up our act.‡

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